What would you do if you were overlooked for a promotion or raise just because you took your company up on its offer to work from home? What about if your onsite colleagues held important meetings without you, eliminating your ability to contribute to critical discussions? What might your employees do in these situations?
Scenarios like these are becoming all too real for many remote workers as their places of employment move toward a hybrid work environment. Although the flexibility to choose where you want to work is a benefit, it can come with serious career implications if proximity bias sets in.
What is proximity bias?
When people incorrectly process or interpret information based on their own perception of a person, object or situation, it causes cognitive bias. Cognitive biases can affect your behavior, judgment, memory and decision-making processes. Proximity bias is a form of cognitive bias in which people tend to give preferential treatment to those physically closest to them. In terms of the manager-employee relationship, it applies to business owners and leaders who give preferential treatment to in-office workers at the expense of remote employees.
Here are some examples of proximity bias in the workplace:
- Excluding remote workers from important meetings or major decision-making conversations
- Promoting in-office employees over remote employees who are more qualified
- Only giving special projects or assignments to employees who work in the office
- Rating the performance and contributions of onsite employees higher than remote employees, even when workforce analytics prove otherwise
- Communicating new information to onsite team members, but not remote team members
- Fostering personal and professional connections with in-office colleagues, but not remote staff
While proximity bias may not have been a significant workplace problem in the past, when almost all employees were based in the office, it’s a rising concern as more businesses opt for hybrid workforces, with some staffers coming into the office and others working remotely.
Did you know? According to Gallup, 53% of remote-capable jobs were expected to be hybrid in 2022 and beyond. That leaves a lot of room for proximity bias to affect in-person and virtual employees.
How does proximity bias affect your business?
Proximity bias is bad for your employees and bad for business. One of the biggest reasons is because it can lead onsite team members to receive preferential treatment, special projects, learning and development opportunities, promotions, raises, and other career advancement opportunities over their equally (if not more) qualified remote counterparts.
When career advancement decisions are made based on interpersonal relationships and proximity instead of qualifying metrics and data, it can create an unbalanced culture of resentment and inequity. Continually passing over remote employees for new projects and opportunities can cause them to feel less motivated and ultimately reduce job satisfaction and productivity. If the bias goes on long enough, there’s a good chance your top remote talent will eventually kick you to the curb and seek employment elsewhere. Employees want to be recognized for their hard work regardless of where they’re located.
Proximity bias can also impact your company’s inclusiveness, especially regarding diversity and leadership. Many women and other minorities benefit from remote work because it allows them to better balance other aspects of their lives. While working from home is a luxury for some, it’s a necessity for others. But if you’re not seeing these employees’ faces in the office every day, they may not come to mind when you’re considering leadership shuffles. Passing over these workers for career advancement opportunities can lead to inequity in terms of leadership, which can, in turn, hurt your company. After all, studies time and time again have proven that diversity in leadership is good for business. [Read related article: How to Improve Workplace Diversity and Inclusion]
FYI: Racially and ethnically diverse organizations are 25% more likely to have greater financial returns than their less diverse industry peers, per McKinsey.
How can you avoid proximity bias?
The problem with proximity bias is that it’s often unintentional and sometimes unnoticed. You and your fellow business leaders might not consciously exclude remote workers from opportunities, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Here are five ways to reduce proximity bias in the workplace.
1. Educate yourself and your employees about proximity bias.
Proximity bias isn’t a new phenomenon, but it may be new to many businesses. The first step in preventing it is education. Take the time to train your staff on what proximity bias looks like, how it can negatively affect your team, and how each person can take strides toward avoiding it altogether.
2. Create a career path for each employee.
Offering professional development opportunities is important for attracting top talent and reducing turnover rates. Consult with each employee to create a realistic career path for them. Whether they make vertical or lateral career shifts, team members want to know they can learn, grow and advance their careers within your organization. When you create career pathing and actively work toward helping each employee stay on track, it can help you make objective decisions about which staffers are the best fit for certain projects and assignments, instead of defaulting to onsite employees based on the more personal relationships you share with them.
3. Standardize your performance evaluation process.
Create a standardized process for measuring and evaluating employee performance and contributions. Outline clear employee expectations and responsibilities, explain what metrics will be used to measure success, and then fairly evaluate performance based on those metrics. Implementing a performance management process based on data – as opposed to opinions and personal relationships – will help you make fair, unbiased decisions when it’s time to dole out raises, promotions, special projects and other opportunities. This is a useful tip for any organization, not just ones that want to eliminate proximity bias.
4. Encourage remote employees to speak up during meetings.
Although we’ve come a long way with virtual internal communication, video conferencing still poses a few challenges. Speaking up on a Zoom call can be awkward and sometimes even harder if many of the other participants are with each other in person. As a business leader, it’s crucial that you make a conscious effort to address your remote workers during meetings and encourage them to speak up. Giving each virtual employee a chance to speak will allow them to contribute their ideas like any onsite team member would.
Tip: If you want to enhance your team’s video conferencing skills, check out our video conferencing etiquette tips for presenters and attendees.
5. Have managers hold frequent one-on-one meetings with their subordinates.
Communication is essential, especially when your workforce is distributed. Insist that all managers hold weekly or biweekly one-on-one meetings with each of their direct reports, regardless of whether they are onsite or remote. These frequent check-ins will help ensure each employee gets valuable face time with their manager, even if they’re working from another location. That regular interaction can help keep proximity bias at bay. These meetings are also a great opportunity for employees to raise any questions or concerns about their role, responsibilities and other matters.
Proximity bias is a real problem. It’s up to you to stop it.