How to spot signs of proximity bias in the workplace

Proximity bias – in which managers favour employees who are in view and on site work over their remote counterparts – is an outdated phenomenon and damages businesses, says Jungle HR CEO, Teresa Boughey. Here are five things to look out for in your workplace

For many of those who have been in the workplace for longer, hybrid working has required some significant adaptation. However, for people entering the job market now it is something they have come to expect. The majority of recent university graduates completed their degrees online during the pandemic, and then fell into remote jobs. They have come to assume that employers should provide more flexibility and understand that remote working is a perfectly viable alternative to attending the workplace.

Even so, people still often unconsciously default to thinking about work as a physical space and therefore prefer employees to be in the office. As graduates enter new jobs, they must learn to balance both their own preferences with the expectations of their employer. One central aspect to this will be learning to gauge attitudes within the office: how far does the preference for in-office working, often referred to as ‘proximity bias’, go?

Keeping an eye out for proximity bias

Proximity bias is an unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. It is the idea that businesses or managers and leaders believe that those employees who are in close proximity and physically on-site work harder and are more productive than remote employees. As a consequence, they benefit from greater rewards and ultimately, find more success than their remote counterparts. 

Why do you need to tackle proximity bias?

Not only is proximity bias an outdated phenomenon, it is actively damaging to businesses. It negatively impacts organisational culture, bringing division, affecting morale, employee wellbeing and retention. 

For new starters, the influence of proximity bias in the workplace may stunt their onboarding process. If they find themselves in an environment where a physical workplace is preferred, then remote workers may experience challenges in forming productive or valuable connections. They may also have a poor understanding of how the company works as a whole, and may find it a challenge to establish what responsibility sits with who.

Those beginning a new role and working remotely, or at least partially remotely, may experience the worst of proximity bias. Not only are they new to the business, meeting new people and trying to absorb how everything works, but they could also fall behind quickly if their employer is not prepared to invest in their training as much as for those turning up to the office each day.

Proximity bias is easier to discuss than spot. Often, it is not overt and reveals itself only over time. So, as graduates begin their careers, some even entering management positions, how can they begin to spot the signs of proximity bias? Here are five tips on what to look out for:

1. Research training schemes

Most companies are open about their opportunities for progression, it is what attracts many candidates to apply for new openings. If an organisation guarantees hybrid working on the surface, the true depth of their commitment will become evident in the different pathways they offer for both remote and in-person workers to advance through the company.

Are virtual equivalents offered for training? Are all networking opportunities purely in-person activities? Is there a history of remote employees sometimes missing out on promotion? Although many details may be difficult to discern before entering a company, patterns of  inequality will be simpler to spot once recruited.

2. Check mentoring or coaching frameworks

Managers should develop a system to ensure they are connecting with everyone in their team on a regular basis, regardless of location. This might look like managers planning an end-of-week reflection on who they have or have not contacted regularly, or which team members are working on each project.

If people working remotely are not having as much time invested in them as those in the physical workplace, it is a key sign of proximity bias. Regular meetings with both managers and co-workers are essential for any employee to feel settled and to grow. With the risk of feeling isolated and static within your role often greater for those working remotely, frequent check-ins and communication with others not only prevents a preference for one group over another but it’s also helpful for employee integration and their sense of belonging at work.

3. Check your own biases

Before anyone attempts to identify the flaws in an organisation, people must check their own biases. The legacy of the nine to five, physical workplace is strong, and will take some time to overcome. It is likely to have subtly shaped many people’s expectations of the workplace without them realising. Therefore, when starting a new role, self-reflection and examination are important. Time spent developing inclusive behaviours and strengthening ‘soft skills’, such as self-awareness, emotional intelligence and trying to identify and challenge inner prejudices will all be helpful not only in warding off the potential for personal proximity bias, but also identifying wider trends in it too.

4. Prioritise adequate collaboration tools

No matter where employees are located, businesses should facilitate working environments that suit everyone, for example, arranging hybrid meetings so that all participants are included and have an equal chance to contribute. Technology can play an important role in mitigating the effects of proximity bias. Tools such as video conferencing and instant messages accommodate live collaboration and boost the camaraderie and cohesion of the workforce, something that is essential in making sure that disparity in location doesn’t cause social distance between employees.

5. Talk to other employees

One important thing for graduates to look out for is the pressure of ‘virtual presenteeism’. New to a job and trying to make a good impression, it is easy to try and take every opportunity to be seen as someone who ‘shows up’, even if virtually. However, this is unsustainable, unnecessary, can impact balancing personal and working lives, and if prolonged, can affect wellbeing.

So, graduates should talk to other employees, both in the office and remote, share their preferences, try to understand what others like and need and agree on methods of collaboration and communication that work for all. Even as newcomers, it’s important for employees to voice their thoughts in order to shape their working lives in the way they want to and forge a culture of transparency amongst co-workers. Fighting proximity bias is not the role of one, but the coming together of many.

Teresa Boughey is CEO of Jungle HR and the Founder of Inclusion 247. She is a TEDx speaker, a Non-Executive Director and author of Closing the Gap.  

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