Do you notice in-person employees getting preferential treatment? If so, proximity bias might be to blame.
I don’t work well at home. I get distracted by household tasks and often end up eating half my fridge contents before the close of business.
I like being in the office. I’m more productive and I enjoy being around my colleagues (even my managers). Until recently, I didn’t realise that in-person contact was so important for my career development, but after spending so much time working from home last year, I quickly realised that simply being in front of people can change the relationship you have with leaders.
As organisations try to figure out how to navigate the challenges of the hybrid workplace, a lesser-known bias could be at play, benefiting your in-person employees over their remote colleagues. It’s called ‘proximity bias’ and it’s important employers stay aware of it if they intend to continue allowing employees to work remotely.
What is proximity bias?
Proximity bias refers to our tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. To borrow an example HRM has used before, who are you more likely to lend $100 to, your neighbour or that guy who lives four blocks away, assuming they have an equal need for the money?
Like many biases, proximity bias usually happens unconsciously. But if leaders aren’t aware of how it’s occurring, it can be quite harmful to employees and your organisation.
Alison Hill, CEO of leadership training organisation Pragmatic Thinking, and co-author of Work From Anywhere, says proximity bias can be damaging because it ignores skill or expertise in favour of location.
“If leaders are giving extra tasks or preferential treatment to someone just because they can see them, then they’re letting their biases inform their decisions, not knowledge or data,” she says.
What does it look like in the workplace?
As HRM has previously reported, a 2008 study shows hybrid teams have the least cohesion compared to in-person or fully remote teams. When teams were entirely one or the other, they had high levels of ‘group identity’. If your entire team started working remotely during the height of the pandemic in Australia, you might remember the sense of togetherness you felt – it was as if we were all in the same boat. However, this research showed that when teams were split, half in-house and half remote, group identity dropped dramatically.
The group that displayed the highest level of cohesion was the in-person group of the hybrid teams. Worryingly, this suggests they trusted and identified with each other over their remote counterparts.
While the study didn’t name proximity bias explicitly, it’s certainly at play here.
The in-person members of the hybrid teams probably weren’t intentionally leaving out their remote members, but it’s easy to see how you develop trust quickly with the person sitting next to you, rather than a person in the next suburb, state, or country.
Imagine you’re in the workplace having a minor IT issue – you can’t open a particular file, for example. Who are you most likely to ask for help? Your desk mate, or a colleague working from home?
You’re more likely to opt for the quicker option rather than calling or emailing a remote colleague, right? Over time, repeated interactions like this will build a bond with in-person colleagues quicker than with those working remotely.
When this happens, leaders might start inadvertently favouring those employees they’ve developed a connection with by virtue of proximity.
Longer-term favoritism in the workplace can breakdown trust between employees and, unsurprisingly, create feelings of unfairness. This inequity can negatively impact employee productivity, leading them to only contribute the bare minimum as they don’t see their output being adequately acknowledged. It can also lead to high turnover as employees might leave when they feel unappreciated.
It’s not hard to imagine how this feels for those working from home. Hill says remote employees could quickly begin to feel out of the loop if they notice their in-person colleagues are getting preferential treatment.
“That can lead to loneliness at work and a disconnection to culture… If that continues for a period of time, what would happen is individuals [start to] feel like they are contractors and not team members.”
Employees who feel isolated from their workplace are more likely to experience loneliness which can lead to poor performance, lowered role commitment and greater levels of presenteeism. Worst of all, loneliness can take years off an employee’s life.
How to combat it?
Education is a worthwhile place to start when combatting proximity bias. Unconscious bias training can raise awareness among leaders of issues such as proximity bias, so those wielding influence in your organisation can better identify the signals that might indicate they’re neglecting some of their team.
If you’re someone who manages a large team, and you want to investigate the possible impact of proximity bias on your workplace, Hill recommends conducting a “team connection review” by reflecting on who you spoke to each day and then making a plan to reach out to any employees you might have missed.
“Also ask what kind of conversations you had, so consider quality as well as quantity. That can reveal if you’re giving preferential attention to certain employees.”
You might have touched base with Cass, your remote employee, to check in how they’re going, but did you offer them an option to contribute or add more value? For example, if you needed someone’s input on a piece of work, instead of getting an in-house employee to run their eye over it, why not ask for Cass’s thoughts? Intentional, value-add touchpoints are incredibly important in virtual work environments.
“That makes it an easier platform for staff members to be able to say, ‘We talked about trying to connect with each other once a day. I’ve been working from home for the last week and I haven’t heard from anyone. What are we doing about that?” Alison Hill, CEO of Pragmatic Thinking
You also may notice conversations with one employee involve giving them better feedback or learning opportunities. If so, it’s good to note if you’re doing that because they need it, or because it’s more convenient to you.
Quality conversations also mean talking with not just to employees, i.e. ensure conversations with one employee aren’t just transactional. If you’re only speaking with an employee to tell them what to do, and aren’t checking in or really listening to what they’re saying, then that employee might not feel as valued.
Hill says reaching out to others doesn’t need to be a formal event. As a leader you could put a note in your diary reminding you to contact the person, and it will still appear adhoc to them which might make the conversation feel more authentic than a scheduled catch up.
If you do want a more structured approach, consider creating a ‘communication charter’ with your team. Hill says to begin by asking yourself the following questions:
- What does it look like when our team is operating well?
- What does it look like when our team is not operating well?
If your team works best with a daily group call, then make sure that’s included in your communication charter. Alternatively, perhaps your team works best when left to their own devices in which case, a weekly meeting might be more appropriate.
For an even more bespoke approach, you could create communication plans tailored to individual team members.
HRM has written about these plans before. They are a bit like a personal situation plan for communication. Employees identify the way they like to communicate (email, phone, text etc), and how or when they are most likely to respond.
The most important thing to make these plans work, says Hill, is to hold each other accountable and make sure employees feel empowered to call each other out, and to pull their manager up when the plan isn’t being followed.
“That makes it an easier platform for staff members to be able to say, ‘We talked about trying to connect with each other once a day. I’ve been working from home for the last week and I haven’t heard from anyone. What are we doing about that?’”
It’s important for leaders to remember that some employees work really well remotely, and they shouldn’t be neglected because they’ve found a solution that better suits their lifestyle.
It can be confronting to realise you might be treating some employees differently than others, but Hill says being curious about how things are going in the new world of work is only going to improve your organisation.
“If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I’ve seen that in my organisation’ then don’t be afraid to reach out to those leaders and come from a place of curiosity not judgment.
“You don’t have to be accusatory, just ask if they’ve noticed this trend and if they’ll keep an eye on it.”
If you’re still adjusting to hybrid teams, consider taking AHRI’s short course on making flexibility work.