How to avoid proximity bias in the workplace

We’ve all experienced FOMO, or a ‘fear of missing out’ before. Whether it’s not being able to attend a party, or the finals of a major sporting event, it can hurt your feelings to know that other people are having fun without you. However, in the working world, this takes on a whole different meaning. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are adapting to ‘hybrid’ working models, which involves employees attending the office for only a few days a week (or month). This can lead to what is known as ‘proximity bias’, which can cause hybrid or remote employees to feel excluded from meetings, business relationships, and career advancement opportunities that their on-site colleagues have access to. 

You might be rolling your eyes reading this, but the statistics for this might surprise you. For example, research from LinkedIn has found that 44% of UK workers who work partially or fully remotely are worried that co-workers who attend the office will be favoured by their boss. Therefore, if you have employees who aren’t in the office full-time, it’s vital to know how to identify proximity bias and to take steps to avoid this issue. 

What is proximity bias?

In short, proximity bias is a type of favouritism. Like other forms of bias, it works unconsciously, and can be easily ignored if not called out directly. As Protocol explains, proximity bias is ‘the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts’. This might mean on-site employees having more time to build relationships with senior management, and being a first choice for promotion opportunities, while remote employees are left out. In a worst case scenario, this could lead to discrimination.

Proximity bias can start developing quite innocently. Take this as an example – if you’re having an issue with the photocopier, are you more likely to ask for help from someone nearby, or would you call a colleague who’s working from home that day? These small interactions can build up a relationship over time, which can eventually lead you to believe that the people you see in the office on a regular basis are more trustworthy, friendlier, and better employees than those you only see occasionally.

Why is proximity bias bad?

In the long run, proximity bias can do huge damage to your company culture. Qlearsite reports that 60% of remote workers believe they miss out on information that is only shared in-person, and 55% say they are excluded from meetings. In the long run, this can make them feel excluded and unvalued, resulting in reduced productivity and morale. If you have any hybrid or remote workers in your business, it is essential for you to educate yourself about how proximity bias can show itself, and to make an effort to prevent this issue. 

How to avoid proximity bias

Tackling proximity bias can be a challenge, but doing so shows a commitment to employee morale and wellbeing, which will help ensure that you have a happy and productive workforce for years to come. Some methods to tackle proximity bias might include

  • Identifying where proximity bias might be a problem – do you have certain departments that have more remote or hybrid workers? By knowing which areas of your company might have a proximity bias issue, either now or in the future, you will be able to target your messaging in the right way.
  • Raising awareness – if you’re reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step! Take the time to educate yourself about proximity bias, and encourage other managers to do so as well. You may also want to consider anti-bias training as an additional prevention method.
  • Set agendas for meetings – in some meetings, the loudest voices can dominate the room, and the quietest ones are allowed to hide. Setting a clear agenda in advance gives everyone an equal opportunity to prepare their contributions, and will help keep the meeting on track.
  • Make office time a networking opportunity – if your employees have to be in the office, make sure that time matters. Having face-to-face interactions will help your employees build rapport with each other, and can help remote workers feel more engaged with the workplace.
  • Ask your employees for feedback – these techniques will only work if they fit in with what your employees want. Asking for regular feedback from your remote and on-site teams will provide accountability, and help you identify what needs to be changed to ensure that your anti-proximity bias measures are working. 

Final thoughts

If you’re looking for other ways to support your remote employees, our article with advice on how to have a smooth transition back to the office might give you a few ideas on how to connect with them and help them feel like valued employees, no matter their location. 

The best way to monitor proximity bias is through continued vigilance. By checking in with your employees, both remote and on-site, on a regular basis, you will be able to identify anything that might be a cause for concern. Proximity bias cannot be solved overnight, but honest and open communication with your staff, in combination with anti-proximity bias training, will go a long way in addressing this issue.

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