The rise of hybrid work has brought about a new and critical issue: proximity bias.

This bias often leads leadership and management to unconsciously favor in-office employees, a tendency that can significantly impact workplace dynamics. Recognizing and mitigating the subtle influences of proximity bias is crucial for fostering a productive and fair workplace.

Pressed for time? Here’s a quick summary…

  • Proximity bias challenges: Proximity bias leads to an unconscious preference for in-office employees. This often results in remote workers receiving fewer promotion and collaboration opportunities, experiencing feelings of isolation, and having decreased job satisfaction.
  • Impact on workplace dynamics: Neglecting remote employees can weaken team cohesion and trust, undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and may increase turnover.
  • Equal access to opportunities: Offer online training and development tools and virtual wellness initiatives, providing all employees with equal growth and well-being opportunities.
  • Performance evaluation: Establish clear performance indicators like OKRs and KPIs, ensuring that performance assessments and career progression are based on results, not location.
  • Regular communication: Establish routine one-on-one manager check-ins, all-hands meetings, and team updates to build unity and ensure adequate support for remote employees.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias is a term first used by psychologists in the 1970s to explain the unconscious preference for people who are physically close to us.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias in the workplace often leads to the tendency to favor employees who are physically present in the office over those who work remotely. This bias, often unconscious, can influence performance evaluations, promotions, and opportunities for professional development. Its presence is recognized by employees and leaders alike:

  • 52% of front-line workers believe that being fully on-site is more beneficial for career progression than remote or hybrid arrangements.
  • 71% of senior HR leaders and 62% of senior business leaders acknowledge potential bias between in-office and remote workers.

Consequences Of Proximity Bias

Proximity bias creates disparities between remote and in-office workers, affecting not only individual morale and job satisfaction but also impacting workplace dynamics, employee retention, and organizational success.

Consequences Of Proximity Bias
  • Career advancement disparities: Remote employees, despite being 15% more productive on average, often get promoted less than their in-office counterparts due to reduced physical visibility. This can decrease employee morale and increase turnover.
  • Isolation & dissatisfaction: Bosses are twice as likely to prefer in-office work and may project this expectation onto their teams. This can cause remote workers to feel overlooked and undervalued, breeding feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction.
  • Hindered team collaboration & trust: Remote employees may be excluded from collaborative opportunities due to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ dynamic. This is exacerbated by implicit biases where remote workers are perceived as less engaged or committed. Such exclusions can sideline them from important projects and decision-making, weakening team trust and cohesion.
  • Derailed DEI initiatives: Proximity bias can amplify existing workplace inequities, impacting underrepresented groups who might prefer or require remote work. This can result in their exclusion from DEI initiatives and leadership roles, leading to further marginalization and hindered career growth, while challenging the organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion DEI.
  • Low job satisfaction & retention: Perceptions of fairness and inclusivity in the workplace significantly influence employees’ job satisfaction. Shane Spraggs, CEO of Virtira, notes that remote workers in large organizations are less likely to tolerate perceived unfairness and seek more equitable opportunities.

5 Strategies To Overcome Proximity Bias

As organizations navigate modern work arrangements, addressing proximity bias is crucial for maintaining a balanced and fair environment.

1. Transparent & Objective Performance Metrics

Transparent & Objective Performance Metrics

Reevaluate how productivity is measured, recognizing that physical presence doesn’t equate to productivity. Establish clear performance indicators like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Regularly review these metrics with employees to guarantee that career progression and performance assessments are based on results and contributions, not location.

2. Equal Opportunities For All

Ensure every employee has equal access to opportunities for growth and well-being, regardless of their work location. This involves:

  • Offering online courses, workshops, and other training and development tools for consistent professional growth and skill development.
  • Including remote employees in DEI initiatives to ensure their perspectives contribute to a more inclusive workplace.
  • Integrating virtual well-being initiatives, such as on-demand classes, supporting the physical and mental health of all employees.

3. Empathetic Leadership & Management

Empathetic Leadership & Management

Regularly train leaders and managers in unconscious bias and emotional intelligence. Such training can improve communication in virtual environments and build awareness of the unique challenges remote employees face. This promotes an inclusive, empathetic workplace where all employees feel valued and heard.

4. Cross-Location Collaboration Opportunities

Include both remote and in-office staff in teams and projects, fostering a sense of unity. Collaborative platforms, video conferencing, and digital workspaces can help bridge physical distance and create a sense of belonging for remote workers.

5. Regular & Structured Communication

Regular & Structured Communication

Establish routine check-ins and updates, including:

  • One-on-one manager check-ins for employees to request support and offer suggestions for improving their work experience.
  • All-hands meetings, conducted virtually, to ensure all employees are aligned and informed.
  • Team updates to discuss ongoing projects and address challenges, scheduled to accommodate different time zones.

Other Articles In Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion