Proximity bias is invading hybrid workplaces. Here’s how leaders can fight back

‘The concept of “proximity bias” might be a new buzzword, but the concept of “out of sight out of mind” is rooted in centuries of tradition. 

Back before anyone knew how the brain or memory works, people realized that, if you don’t see something or someone in a while, you gradually move on because other things demand your attention. 

In the 20th century, German psychologists studying the perception of shapes realized that we perceive objects as related if they are grouped together. The finding became the proximity bias definition and one of the Gestalt principles and is widely used in design – we group sentences in paragraphs, content in blocks, and so on. 

Before long, the “law of proximity” entered social psychology where it proved to be just as true. An MIT study found that students were likelier to build positive relationships with people around to and have weaker connections with those not in close proximity. 

In the study, even small distances mattered – participants had higher odds of becoming friends or romantic partners with those sitting next to them or living across the hall in the dorm and much less so with those at the opposite end of the lecture hall. 

Proximity bias: a threat to hybrid workplaces

In 2022,  proximity bias is brought up with newfound ferocity. The shift to remote work during the pandemic helped level the playing field but, as leaders shift towards hybrid workplaces, the effects of proximity bias can be disastrous. They already are – a story shared on Reddit is one among many examples of “office favoritism” and disregard for remote talent. 

“Partner informed me that I wouldn’t be promoted because I went remote this year and they wanted to see how it would work out” – a user writes. 

The Internet is full of proximity bias examples: people share them on Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok, proving that, in 2022, “out of sight, out of mind” is just as relevant as it was when it made its first appearance in 1534. 

Besides anecdotal evidence, SHRM survey data shows that remote employees are at a higher risk of being labeled “replaceable” compared to their on-site counterparts. A different study showed that, despite being more productive, remote workers are 15% less likely to get promoted. 

The proximity bias is so widespread that employees report anxiety about feeling excluded or not given credit where it is due. According to McKinsey, the anxiety hybrid employees feel about the lack of collaboration and inclusion is 2.9 times likelier to drive them to burnout compared to on-site workers. 

In their take on employee anxiety, NPR quotes a CEO saying: “If you want a job, choose remote, if you want a career, go to the office”. A surveyed executive wraps his statement with “No judgment on which you pick but don’t be surprised by certain outcomes”. Ironically, this supposedly neutral remark oozes judgment and sounds like a poorly disguised threat aimed at those seeking flexibility and work-life balance. 

Unfortunately, many leaders are of the same opinion so it is barely surprising that remote workforces feel guilty for not coming in. They try to over-compensate: take more meetings than everybody else and work longer hours – putting themselves at risk of burnout and systemic health damage. 

Addressing proximity bias is vital to hybrid workplace culture

Leveling the playing field is in the talk since the early days of the remote-to-hybrid transition. Yet, to be successful in the endeavor, leaders have to build genuine confidence in the equality of remote workers’ contributions to their on-site counterparts.

Through the experience of helping organizations of all sizes set up hybrid workplaces, we have ideated a framework for ensuring workplace equality and creating ways for remote employees to bring tangible value to their companies.

Step #1. Diagnose the problem and monitor its symptoms

The biggest problem with workplace inequality is the ease with which managers dismiss it. Many believe that, if remote workers are not openly discriminated against or verbally assaulted, there’s no cause for alarm.  

Yet, more often than not, leaders lack the data that would call proximity bias out. 

It can lurk in the way you distribute compensation (As a rule of thumb, are office workers paid more?), pick promotion candidates (Do you consider remote candidates as readily as on-site workers or is there a slight preference for the latter), share knowledge (Do office workers know more about what’s going on in the company), or administer benefits (Are most perks in your package office-focused?). 

Once you answer these questions, you might discover you have a workplace equality problem no one is aware of. Then, you eradicate its manifestations in the following way: 

  • Monitor pay data and make sure everyone is compensated equally. 
  • Track your organization’s promotion history and make a conscious effort of including remote workers on the list of candidates. 
  • Review your perks and create a remote-friendly package (companies can cover hardware, co-working space subscriptions, gym subscriptions, or Starbucks coffee). 
  • Create a single source of truth for organizational knowledge and make it easy to update. Have a habit of recording or carefully documenting office meetings. Start an internal newsletter where you share news and updates. 

Step #2. Don’t treat remote work as an exception 

 In a perfect world, hybrid work should be an equal mix of in-office and remote work but, in reality, the balance is disproportionately skewed towards coming to the office. 

Take Google as an example – it requires team members to submit a request for an extra remote day but there’s no similar procedure should you ask for an extra office day. At Apple, office work is also seen as preferential while remote work is seen as a concession to teams on a rebellious streak. 

Leveling the playing field requires extra effort in upending the status quo and giving teams not only the ability to freely choose where they work but the infrastructure needed for them to excel in a remote environment. 

Spotify and Airbnb are poster cases for this approach – both companies have offices, yet support remote workers by covering co-working subscriptions or partnering with local facilities – coffee shops, gyms, etc. – to set remote workers up for success. For both organizations, the shift had no effect on productivity while helping cut costs and reduce the office footprint. 

Leaders who are serious about building long-lasting hybrid teams, don’t see remote work as an exception for families with young children or disabled employees but an opportunity everyone should be able to request with no extra scrutiny. 

Step #3. Tweak OKRs

It’s hard to find a better way to describe the global workforce of 2022 than “Stressed, Sad, and Anxious” – a title of an HBR article going over the results of the latest Gallup data. According to those numbers, 44% of survey participants report high stress levels. 

Some of that anxiety can be attributed to external pressures – inflation, energy crisis, or shaky geopolitical equilibrium – but most trace back to the workplace. 

For hybrid workers, anxiety often comes from not knowing if their work is good enough. Managers are also stressed on the matter – they cannot tell how well the team is performing. 

Addressing that ambiguity is a helpful step toward leveling the playing field for on-site and remote workers – here are a few ways to get started: 

  • Set clear tactical goals: “Deploy a feature A by the deadline B”, “Write X content pieces a week”, etc. Reaching these easily quantifiable objectives will give remote workers more confidence and fulfillment, while managers will get a better view of the team’s performance. 
  • Set up a standardized reporting process. Make sure that on-site and remote employees follow the same playbook when reporting their accomplishments. This way, a leader gets an objective way of assessing performance and can keep proximity bias at bay. 
  • Help remote teams find ways to add value. Remote teams might find it harder to be proactive in the workplace due to the hurdles they have to jump through to reach their peers. That’s why leaders should map out s number of ways, in which remote workers can contribute to the company’s long-term growth – by organizing documentation, creating an internal knowledge base, mentoring new employees, and so on. A successful leader’s goal is to make sure that remote employees can contribute in ways that go beyond completing routine tasks on their agendas but drive major strategic shifts. 

Step #4. Improve visibility

Hardly any leader can be blamed for playing favorites and giving in to the proximity bias once you look at how limited and rigid the tech stack for managing remote teams is. The lack of connection and engagement between on-site and remote workers might stem from the fact that the tools teams have at their disposal are not seamless enough. 

Indeed, when a leader has to choose between asking a person next to her a question or writing a Slack message to a colleague working remotely without knowing when the answer will come, it’s clear which one is more comfortable and efficient. 

Ensuring the seamlessness of  online communication is a crucial step in creating a level playing field in a hybrid workplace. That means that, when building their stacks, leaders should include tools that make remote employees more seen and easier to reach. 

oVice was designed exactly with that purpose. It is a virtual office where all remote employees come to work. When managers need to reach someone, all they have to do is drag their avatar to a colleague’s virtual desk and ask whatever question that needs an urgent answer. It may well be faster than walking up to someone in the office since no actual walking is involved. 

Step #5. Review your approach to hybrid meetings

Hybrid meetings are a weak point for hybrid workplaces. Hybrid employees are at a disadvantage here because they: 

  • Struggle to see or hear those in the conference room (because of that, new hires might have a hard time remembering faces and names). 
  • Face technical challenges that disturb the flow of the meeting: poor audio quality, video freezing, etc. 
  • Feel awkward interrupting discussions that happen in the conference room and miss out on a chance to contribute. 

Consequently, having found no right time to share it, remote employees can keep a lot of valuable ideas to themselves. 

We have already covered common mistakes managers make when organizing and hosting hybrid meetings – take a look at that list and the solutions we offer to streamline the experience. 

Answering your questions 

What is proximity bias? 

Proximity bias is the false impression thar office workers are more productive and valuable to the company than people who work remotely.

What is the impact of proximity bias in a hybrid workplace? 

Proximity bias leads to the uneven distribution of opportunities, knowledge, and compensation in a hybrid workplace. It puts remote employees under heavy emotional strain, and leads to anxiety and burnout. 

How to prevent proximity bias? 

Here are the steps hybrid team leaders can take to fight proximity bias: 

  • Be aware of the problem and track its manifestations 
  • Be accepting of remote work requests and stop treating working from home as inferior to coming to the office. 
  • Set quantifiable tactical OKRs to have clear performance indicators
  • Use tools that improve the visibility of remote workers
  • Improving the inclusion of remote employees in hybrid meetings 

The bottom line

It is tempting to say that “proximity bias” is almost an evolutionary phenomenon, a force too strong to fight. Luckily, over centuries, we have managed to improve our handling of  many other workplace biases, like gender, race, and age. Although a lot of work still needs to be done until female leaders feel included in the workplace, black employees feel the respect given more generously to their white counterparts, young workers are treated seriously, and older employees are still seen as valuable assets. However, with movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, we managed to increase awareness of these biases and develop mechanisms for consciously eradicating them. 

We believe that leaders can be just as conscious about the proximity bias and factor its disastrous impact in when making organizational decisions: compensation and perks distribution, career development, building a collaboration tech stack. 

On the last one, oVice is a simple but effective fix. The platform underscores the importance of giving remote teams a space where they can be reached just as easily as their in-person colleagues, connect with each other effortlessly, and be aware of everything that’s happening in the organization. 

You can learn more about the tangible benefits of adopting a virtual office space through our customer stories or visit the demo space to see how the platform excels at bringing teams together. 

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