How to Fight Proximity Bias in the Remote Workforce

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Trish Young

February 9, 2022

    Have you ever given thought to who on your team is the most productive? For most leaders working in the office, it is easy to look above your desk and notice the team members that come in early and stay until late. You can see that they are in the office and working diligently. If they become off task, you can guide them back on track easily with just a nudge.

    What about your remote team? Are they productive? Do they stay on task? Would they be equally considered for a promotion compared to their in-office peers? If you answered anything other than ‘yes’ to all these questions, you may find yourself having proximity bias.

    What is proximity bias?

    Proximity bias describes the idea that we give preferential treatment to those who are physically closest to us. This can look like on-site employees getting better perks and more time with executives, while their remote peers experience getting left out of meetings, inadvertently silenced on calls, and even receiving less pay than their in-office counterparts. At a time where remote work is growing, proximity bias is a real concern for both employers and their employees.

    Although remote work has been steadily growing for the past decade, in the past two years it has grown at an accelerated rate. The pandemic has forced many companies to reevaluate their work location requirements and thus many are choosing to adopt fully remote or hybrid workspaces. 16% of companies around the world are completely remote. While this number may seem low, compare that to 5% just two years ago and you can see the rapid expansion. Currently, more than 58% of the entire U.S. workforce are remote workers.

    How can employers reduce proximity bias?

    Identifying and reducing proximity bias will be key for employers going into the future, especially for those having hybrid work models. To keep top-tier talent, employers will want to ensure that their employees are happy and feel as if they are all treated equally, whether on-site or not. While impossible to erase, using the following tips will help to reduce proximity bias in hybrid work models.

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    Remote executive team

    One of the biggest issues with proximity bias is that remote workers do not have the chance to interact with the management team as their on-site peers do. The clearest way for a company to signal that their remote team is just as important and hard-working is to start at the top. By having the executive team work off-site, employees will all have the chance at an equal time with upper management. Not only does this reduce proximity bias within leadership, but it also gives the executive team a chance to understand the issues that remote workers face and work on initiatives to combat those issues.

    Hire a head of remote work

    Having a head of remote work position helps to advocate for remote workers and their needs throughout the company. Ideally, this person will be on-site to address issues that may arise with technology, scheduling, and onboarding. The head of remote position will see to it that all remote workers feel included and valued as their on-site peers do.

    Formally train management

    Managers who take formal training on proximity bias and how to support their remote workforce are better equipped to tackle common issues that arise in remote or hybrid model workplaces. Though most are in their first stages, many companies that are offering unconscious bias training are now including proximity bias in their programs.

    Meet with employees virtually and in person

    Employees that get impromptu “meetings” such as in the office kitchen or by the water cooler have shown to have robust working relationships, stronger bonds with their coworkers and better teamwork within organizations. It can be difficult to recreate these teambuilding opportunities in hybrid or fully distributed workforces.

    Schedule time to meet with your team, whether virtually or in-person. Virtual events can take many different forms, but some of the most common team building activities are:

    • Virtual coffee
    • Online office games
    • Using emoji nomenclature
    • Dedicated Slack channels

    Meeting up in person takes more planning than virtual events but are equally as important for strengthening bonds across teams. Holding annual, bi-annual, or quarterly events could mean the entire team is at the company headquarters or in a completely new location. Creating this crucial face to face time takes team building an extra step, especially for fully remote companies.

    Data, metrics, evaluation, and results

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    Evaluating an employee’s performance based on data-driven metrics and results will immediately reduce proximity bias in the workplace. In a fully distributed or hybrid workplace where employees are less visible, it is vital for leadership to focus on tangible results. Creating clear objectives and measuring performance solely against the results creates a more equitable workplace.

    Create more inclusive meetings

    It’s easy to see how remote employees may feel left out of meetings, especially in a hybrid office. By creating a uniform experience around meetings, companies can ensure that everyone feels included and that their ideas are being heard. Having all employees, remote or not, use their own webcams can level the field for everyone. Dedicated meeting hosts can make sure that everyone has time to speak, and that in-person conversations are heard by those off-site.

    Recently, companies have been forced to undergo rapid changes in the way they look at their workforce and adjust on the fly. What were once long-term ideas have become new realities in just a few short years. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are bumps along the way and unforeseen issues cropping up. By understanding proximity bias, companies that employ fully distributed or hybrid office models can take the initiative to confront it head-on and strive to create equality among their workforces.