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How to Counter Proximity Bias in Remote and Hybrid Work

Hybrid work environments allow employees to work when and where they’re most productive. 

While this flexibility is highly valued by employees and gives employers who offer it a competitive edge in a tight labor market, hybrid work also comes with some challenges.

One of the most significant is proximity bias. 

What Is Proximity Bias? 

Proximity bias is the tendency to favor people who are physically closer to you.

In hybrid work environments, proximity bias occurs when on-site employees who are physically closer to managers get preferential treatment over remote employees. 

This is a natural cognitive bias that many managers may not be aware of. Some managers who prefer working in person want their employees to be there too. 

Some examples of proximity bias in action include: 

  • Promoting on-site employees over remote employees
  • Offering on-site employees better projects or more mentoring/career development
  • Holding important meetings on-site and excluding remote employees
  • Providing extra perks to on-site employees

The Negative Impact of Proximity Bias

Proximity bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can be damaging to employee morale and daily business operations. It can drive away valuable employees and decrease employee satisfaction.

Managers, start with the following:

  • Take caution not to favor on-site employees and focus equally on your remote employees’ development.
  • Be aware that proximity bias can hinder diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts since people who want a flexible work environment are often women, parents, and employees of color.

Effective managers need to confront the issues of proximity bias head-on and implement guidelines and operating models that deal with the issue systemically. 

How to Deal With Proximity Bias

Proximity bias needs to be clearly and intentionally addressed by leaders in an organization. 

Left unchecked, employees will disengage or be more open to recruiters from the competition, especially ones with more progressive remote-work policies.

Here are four steps you can take to help reduce proximity bias in your workplace: 

1. Embrace a Remote-First Culture

  • Remote work is treated as the default option – All of your processes, procedures, and policies are set up to facilitate remote work.
  • Communication channels are wide open – Transparency and inclusion is highly prioritized via asynchronous communication so that everyone is included and knows what’s going on.
  • Remote workers are honored and nurtured – Providing virtual bonding, support, and career development allows employees to check in on each other and work on skill development.

2. Focus on Outcomes

  • To eliminate proximity bias, processes have to be streamlined and consistent for all. Explicit guidelines for assignments, evaluation, and promotion will ensure that remote workers are treated the same as on-site employees.
  • Managers should attend training to be aware of and avoid the trap of proximity bias.

3. Implement Virtual Check-Ins

  • One-on-one virtual meetings are a valuable tool for improving employee satisfaction and retention rates.
  • By implementing remote one-on-ones, you ensure your remote employees have the same opportunities for feedback, recognition, and mentorship as on-site employees.

4. Educating Team Members About Proximity Bias

  • Talk to your managers and employees about proximity bias. Be proactive about it so that it does not become a problem. When it does become an issue, acknowledging the problem is often the first step in eradicating it.
  • Consider inviting an outside speaker to communicate the negative impact of proximity bias and how other major companies are working to overcome it.

Proximity bias can be a genuine threat to the health and growth of your company.

However, you can create a culture that values outcomes over face-to-face time with the appropriate tools, training, and procedures. 

Here are some resources to check out to learn more about Proximity Bias:

Your team will appreciate the inclusive culture you create. Where all workers can thrive, regardless of location. 

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