Proximity bias refers to our tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.
Like many biases, proximity bias usually happens unconsciously. But if leaders aren’t aware of how it’s occurring, it can be quite harmful to employees and your organization.
Proximity bias can be damaging because it ignores skill or expertise in favor of location.
If leaders are giving extra tasks or preferential treatment to someone just because they can see them, then they’re letting their biases inform their decisions, not knowledge or data.
Today, with many organizations shifting their working models into a hybrid setting, proximity bias is on the rise. The need for leveling the playing field between our remote and office-based workers is higher than ever before.
If we don’t actively work to reduce and manage this bias within our teams, we risk the creation of an unfair workplace, one of the main reasons why remote employees burnout.
Preventing Bias As A Leader
Here are some strategies you can use to ensure you’re preventing bias as a leader:
1. If you’re someone who manages a large team, and you want to investigate the possible impact of proximity bias on your team, conduct a “team connection review” by reflecting on who you spoke to each day and then making a plan to reach out to any employees you might have missed. This is especially important if you’re a leader who works in the office frequently and has several remote team members.
2. Consider what kind of conversations you had, so consider quality as well as quantity. That can reveal if you’re giving preferential attention to certain employees.
3. You might have touched base with your remote employees, to check in on how they’re going, but did you offer them an option to contribute or add more value? For example, if you needed someone’s input on a piece of work, instead of getting an in-house employee to run their eye over it, why not ask your remote team members for their feedback.
4. Run remote-first meetings to ensure that in a team setting, the playing field is level. If you are running meetings where remote team members have to join in, they might find it difficult to speak up, provide input and even feel a part of the meeting.
5. Set the expectation that office team members update the team on relevant topics in your chat channel at the end of their working day- this ensures remote team members feel included.
6. Be aware of how you recognize your team members- do you recognize a job well done when you see someone in person? If so, you might be biased towards remote workers. Instead, try recognizing everyone on your team in the same way- over a video call in a 1-1 or even through written text- email/chat message.
7. Continue to work remotely as much as you can as a leader. This ensures you’re constantly creating empathy towards the experience of being a remote worker. You’ll be better able to identify blockers for remote workers and seek ways to improve the remote employee experience.
Research shows that we are more likely to promote someone that we see in person than we are to promote remote team members.
The problem of inequity in promotion between remote and in-person workers has existed since well before the pandemic forced many people into home-work situations. In a 2015 study conducted in China, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that while people working from home were more productive – 13% more, to be exact – they weren’t rewarded with promotions at nearly the same rate as their in-office colleagues.
A 2019 paper showed that being observed by others while at work resulted in positive outcomes for employees “because it is a strong signal of their commitment to their job, their team and their organization”.
As a leader, you need to be aware of this common bias and actively work towards preventing it. Here are some ways to support you in reducing this bias on your team:
- Consider how many team members you’ve promoted in the past 12 months. How many of them have worked completely remotely?
- Actively communicate promotion opportunities to remote team members at the same time that office-based workers hear of opportunities.
- Meet with remote team members regularly in your 1-1 and discuss their promotion goals and career plans
- Evaluate employee performance based on measurable results. Leaders that establish clear employee objectives and then measure the performance of all workers solely against those standards create a more equitable workplace
- Have all promotion and career development conversations virtual-first
Leading By Example As A Hybrid Leader
The most impactful way to continue to create an inclusive environment in a hybrid setting is to continue to work remotely as much as possible as a leader. If you have some remote team members, and you’re spending the majority of your time in the office, you’ll be more likely to be biased towards remote colleagues.
Continuing to work remotely ensures that leaders:
- Have empathy for the remote employee experience
- Are better able to identify opportunities to create more inclusivity
- Continue to develop their skills as remote leaders