Businesses have discovered that they don’t need a physical workspace to ensure employees are productive. Remote work has become a staple of the workplace, and in 2022, businesses should evolve their commitment to hybrid working structures, migrating the idea from necessary and urgent adaptation to an experience that transforms the workplace.

To do this, leaders should embrace employees’ calls for more flexibility, prioritize creating an inclusive work environment and challenge their own embedded perspectives. Often, businesses prefer for their employees to be on site by default. Known as “proximity bias,” it is one of the largest barriers to creating a workplace that accepts multiple working patterns and is an entrenched bias across many organizations.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias is a form of favoritism. It refers to the idea that we give preferential treatment to those who are physically closest to us. Those whose judgement is clouded by proximity bias tend to favor employees who are front and center of mind (i.e., those that they see and connect with on a regular basis). Meanwhile, employees who continue to work remotely could fall behind.

How Does Proximity Bias Appear in the Workplace?

Proximity bias manifests in several ways. One obvious way is in how people interact. Are managers and colleagues putting as much effort into their relationships with remote workers as those in the office? Training and development opportunities also highlight tangible disparities. Networking, development opportunities and succession planning should be adapted to include remote workers on an equal footing to those in the workplace. Promotions too are often impacted by proximity, with employees in the physical workspace sometimes promoted before their remote counterparts.

Proximity bias can also reveal itself in managers’ perception of success. Organizations sometimes mistake presenteeism (attendance at work being conflated with productivity) as an indicator of success, instead of measurable output. When based on presenteeism, hybrid work complicates a manager’s ability to make connections between results and attributable success, usually leading favoritism toward visible, in-office employees.

The Consequences of Proximity Bias

Proximity bias can cause a range of problems in the workplace, including:

  • Conflict between those in the workplace or working remotely, whether obvious or behind the scenes.
  • Employees experiencing a lack of motivation or fulfilment in their work.
  • Uncertainties in employee retention as people become overlooked or disillusioned.
  • A negative impact on organizational culture.
  • Stilted career progression for individuals.
  • A noticeable impact on employee well-being.

Is Unconscious Bias Training Enough to Combat Proximity Bias?

Managers and leaders must take steps to raise their awareness of proximity bias — and combat it. Unconscious bias training can be a good place to start. However, this should not be a stand-alone solution.

At its best, unconscious bias training can help educate people about undetected stereotypes and highlights when they might occur in the workplace. It can provide a safe space for people to have open conversations, ask questions and share their experiences. At its worst, it leaves attendees with unresolved questions or reinforces other biases. Without broad organizational culture change, however good the intentions, unconscious bias training becomes little more than a tick-box exercise — something you do just to say you’ve done it.

Along with unconscious bias training, here are four other ways to challenge proximity bias:

1. Develop greater self-awareness. Greater self-awareness helps leaders identify and combat their own implicit biases before they affect how they behave. Structured models for self-improvement, such as Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence or Johari’s window model, can help leaders strengthen the soft skills needed to challenge their prejudices.

2. Use technology to reduce emphasis on physical meetings. Video conferencing, live chats and instant messaging can be efficient. However, it’s important to ensure equal participation. Extending decision making periods beyond a single meeting also allows more people to be included and have a voice.

3. Measure performance by output. Recognize that some employees work well remotely and can meet the needs of the role while working hours and patterns that meet their personal, health and lifestyle needs — and these employees should not be overlooked for doing so. Leaders should not resort to presenteeism as a measure of high performance. Instead, objectives should be clearly stated, and the success criteria jointly agreed upon. Inviting peers and other stakeholders to give 360-degree performance feedback may also help reduce proximity bias.

4. Develop a regular system for check-ins. Successfully overcoming proximity bias requires all voices to be heard through continuous conversations. Managers should develop a system to regularly connect with employees, regardless of location. This way, their time can be balanced between those in the office and those connecting remotely. Equal access to training, opportunities for promotion and chances to receive praise or constructive feedback are also important.

In Conclusion

Proximity bias could quickly become an issue inside organizations that are not aware of the impact of their actions. If it’s ignored, businesses risk giving responsibilities, promotions and rewards only to employees who are present and familiar to managers. Unconscious bias training can be a good starting place to raise awareness, but it needs to form part of a holistic program that promotes inclusion regardless of location.