How to save your culture from proximity bias

Favoring those who physically work in the office is proximity bias, and it shouldn't happen says Jim Barnett

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Apr 12, 2023

Finally, we’re getting excited about having more people back in the office; holding in-person events; attending all-hands meetings; clinking coffee cups with teammates, brainstorming together on actual whiteboards…

…but wait, are we forgetting about our work-from-homers and hybrid teammates?

Yes. We might be.

A potential bias is emerging that could undermine all of our recent DEI gains, and it’s called proximity bias.

This is (unwittingly or not), the practice of favoring those who are physically in the office/same proximity as everyone else compared to those who choose to work remotely.

This bias can reveal itself in terms office-based workers being disproportionately promoted compared to those who are not (virtual workers are literally ‘out of sight, and out of mind), or being given more interested projects, or additional responsibilities and training.

For instance, a recent study by the Alliance of Virtual Offices found that remote workers were 38% less likely to receive bonuses and had worse performance reviews and slower career advancement than their office-working peers. This is despite the fact these same remote workers did nearly 50% more overtime.

Why is this?

It’s not because managers aren’t nice people.

It’s more the fact that human beings are hardwired to feel the strongest connections to people directly in our sight lines.

It means that now, after years in isolation or empty offices, executives are so excited to be back in person with their teams that they may unconsciously exhibit proximity bias even more than before.

Proximity bias is real

In a recent survey of about 1,100 enterprise workers by the video collaboration firm Prezi Inc., around two-thirds (66%) of respondents said proximity bias exists in their company cultures.

With this level of response, it’s no wonder employees who work remotely part- or full-time worry their choice to stay home might result in lost opportunities while their in-office co-workers benefit from unintentional bias.

And the facts largely stand for themselves. Research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found remote employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared with their in-office colleagues.

Women suffer the most

The employee group facing the greatest proximity bias may be women and people of color. These are people who prefer hybrid or fully remote arrangements (normally because of childcare responsibilities), at higher rates compared to their white, male peers. This is according to a Future Forum survey of more than 10,700 knowledge workers.

We need to check this now

With hybrid work becoming the most common model, we need to check our bias now.

Employees who feel a sense of inclusion and belonging are happier, and happier workers are more productive. A recent MIT Sloan study found happy employees have lower absentee rates, are more motivated and creative, have better relationships with their peers, and are more likely to stay with their company.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen employees’ sense of belonging decline as more work in remote and hybrid environments.

According to a recent Better Up study titled “The Connection Crisis,” four out of ten workers (remote and in-office) surveyed said they don’t feel any sense of connection to co-workers. The study also found that employees who feel socially isolated had a 313% stronger intention to quit. Let that dramatic difference sit with you for a minute.

For these reasons, cultivating a culture of connection and belonging for remote and hybrid workers must be integral to our efforts to reduce proximity bias and improve diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

How to check your proximity bias:

So what do HRDs need to consider. A number of big areas spring to mind:

Acknowledge the potential for bias in the first place

In my experience, proximity prejudice is rarely intentional. So look for signs of it – like the assumption that on-site employees are more productive.

Notice if you’re holding fewer meetings with hybrid teammates or leaving them out of in-office meetings. Are you handing more interesting projects to employees in your immediate vicinity?

Is your onboarding process for new employees just as robust for remote workers as it is for in-office staff?

Set the tone with intentional onboarding and early mentoring programs

Speaking of onboarding, review your current process through the eyes of a new remote worker.

Do you introduce them to colleagues, mentors and professional development opportunities?

We know good onboarding works; nearly 70% of employees surveyed for OfficeVibe’s State of Employee Engagement report said they’re more likely to stay with their company for at least three years if they have a great orientation experience.

Give permission to socialize and provide a space for life at work

Pre-pandemic, we didn’t truly realize how daily micro-connections at work impacted our happiness and sense of belonging. All those little chats about the weather during elevator rides and water cooler conversations about the weekend, new babies, hobbies and upcoming vacations had a subtle yet profound impact on our social wellbeing. Now we need to bring those micro-connections into a digital world.

Schedule more virtual meet-ups. Use your digital hangouts to spark new introductions and strengthen bonds over shared interests – hobbies, sports, kids, food, movies, and music.

Use technology to introduce teammates in virtual “coffee chats” across teams and time zones. I find the best virtual water coolers are entirely separate from your productivity and workflow apps.

When you allow employees to turn off “work mode,” they’re more likely to connect authentically.

Hold people-centered meetings

Hosting hybrid meetings is essential in today’s hybrid work world, but it’s hard to do them well.

The biggest challenge is keeping everyone involved and engaged. So start with connection time focused on non-work topics – the building block of personal connections – and plan conversation starters.

In addition to this, leave a little unstructured time at the end of hybrid meetings. These can be used for casual chats and check-ins.

Connection time is baked into many meetings at our company; it’s how we encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work and build rapport.

PS You might be skeptical about the benefits of connection time or small talk, but studies, including one by Harvard Business Review researchers, found that chit-chatters experienced more positive emotions, were less burned out, and more willing to go out of their way to help their colleagues.

On the logistics side of hybrid meetings, remember to clue in your remote workforce when meetings are rescheduled at the last minute and be sensitive to time zone differences.

Become a good listener

At my previous company, we saw what happened when other organizations we worked with became good listeners.

These companies had a more engaged workforce because their leaders demonstrated they genuinely cared about their people and responded to key issues.

So in addition to surveying your team, set aside open hours when remote employees can sign up for virtual face-time to connect with company leaders just as easily as in-person workers can stop by your office.

Consider sending personal invites to those quieter remote employees who are unconsciously isolating themselves.

The bottom line

In this unparalleled shift to hybrid work models, it is crucial to be conscious of proximity bias.

We can create a culture of inclusion, equity and happiness if we prioritize it, watch for bias, and take positive action to ensure connection and belonging for all.

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