Overcoming proximity bias in a hybrid workplace

Hybrid workplaces are here to stay, so how do managers avoid proximity bias?

With the hybrid working model remaining in place for many organisations, managers are facing unprecedented challenges with this flexible working style. A true hybrid model is a combination of onsite and remote employees, providing the challenge of supporting employees whilst not having face to face contact.

One of the issues arising from this management style is unconscious bias, the social stereotyping of certain groups or individuals outside of one’s conscious awareness, particularly in relation to the proximity of employees.

So, what do manager’s need to watch out for?

Proximity or visibility bias is the unconscious tendency to provide preferential treatment to those seen in person on a more regular basis, often resulting in a stronger rapport. This can have a negative impact on remote workers, potentially resulting in poorer moral which can lead to a decrease in performance. As more and more businesses and organisations are having to adapt to this newer and more unfamiliar working environment, the risks of proximity or visibility bias are growing and the need to mitigate it becoming more urgent.

We recently shared tips on how to keep remote workers engaged but it is the responsibility of every manager to ensure every team member feels engaged and is treated fairly, no matter where they work from. There can be no excuses for ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to employee experiences.

What are the risks of proximity bias?

  • Giving in-office workers more ‘air-time’ because you are seeing them in person, which could be putting remote workers at a disadvantage when it comes to job opportunities and career development. It is inevitable that in-office workers who get additional time with managers and decision-makers have greater opportunities to build working relationships and trust.
  • Proximity bias can result in unfair opportunities, such as offering a team member a promotion due to a misconception that because you are seeing them more, they are working harder than someone working remotely. The homeworker could be working equally hard, or even harder, but this is not as visible to the team.
  • There is also a risk of managers rating the work of on-site employees more highly than remote employees, regardless of objective performance metrics, simply because of the deeper emotional connections they’ve built by being in each other’s company more frequently.
  • More interesting projects and development opportunities could end up being offered first to those who are more visible to senior leaders.
  • Employees working from home could end up being excluded from impromptu meetings held in the office without adequate provision for remote attendance.
  • Remote employees may become disengaged and not being recognised because they are less visible. This will impact performance and may also impact their mental health.
  • Low employee engagement can result in higher staff turnover as high performing employees seek the engagement they crave in new external opportunities.

If managers continue to demonstrate proximity bias towards employees, it may have unfortunate consequences for workforce performance, business success and the bottom line of your company.

What can managers do to create a level playing field?

  • To enable managers to have greater understanding and engagement with their direct reports work, no matter where they work, frequent check-ins are a must. These should not just be work focussed but should engage team members in conversations about how they’re feeling and what support they may need. This can help identify issues before they begin to effect performance.
  • The leadership team needs to recognise the threat of proximity bias and initiate conversation with managers to openly identify areas where it may exist. Raising awareness of the issue and providing support to mitigate the risks is key to avoid a widescale issue from building.
  • Ensure all communications and information is shared in writing on a central platform, not just verbally.
  • Consider how remote workers are impacted by team video calls. For example, if remote workers dial into a room of in-office workers, can they hear and interact in the conversations as well as those there in person? If not, it may be more appropriate to ask everyone in the team to log in via their own laptops so remote workers are able to clearly see the faces of those in attendance and feel as engaged as those in the office.
  • As well as meetings, facilitating multiple ways to input ideas and suggestions through collaborative working tools, communicative channels or email groups may help tackle proximity bias by ensuring everyone is included and a wider range of views and expertise are captured.
  • Have a quantifiable merit system ensuring that any performance reviews are informed by data from multiple people and sources to really get an understanding of positive feedback about the employee and their full impact across all areas. This will ensure that management sees the accomplishments of every team member thus reducing the risk of bias.

Like other forms of bias, proximity bias is both unconscious and insidious. It can seriously damage the culture and performance of a company if allowed to continue unnoticed.

While it’s a natural feature of our brains and therefore impossible to eliminate entirely, we can learn to recognise our innate bias and the risks they pose and acknowledging proximity bias will enable us to take steps to reduce its influence on business operations and staff management. If we don’t, it could have a negative effect on team morale and performance. undermining the fairness and equality in performance management and reward and a failure to tap into the skills and competence of the entire workforce.

Managers should be proactive in challenging their own proximity bias by asking their teams what would benefit them in terms of their sense of inclusion. Managers need to plan and structure their communications carefully in order to offer the same level of management oversight and support to all through the most appropriate means for each team member or group of individuals. This might mean delivering the same message through multiple channels for office and remote workers and making themselves available for any team connection calls or conversations.


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