Though digital transformation had begun long before 2019, it was catalyzed by the limitations brought on by the pandemic. Business processes everywhere were overhauled and the standard for work wasn’t the same anymore. Remote work quickly became the new normal due to restrictions and restructuring became essential for teams to keep up. Now, as restrictions ease, a new challenge enters the fray – hybrid workplaces. While most companies and employees have adopted hybrid working with open arms, there are challenges to the model. Among these is proximity bias, a major concern that can impede optimal function.
Proximity bias is the unconscious bias that humans inherently display because of an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ attitude. In a hybrid workplace, it shows its ugly face when leaders or managers favor employees and ideas that are in close proximity to them. According to a Gartner survey, 64% of the managers believe that office workers are higher performers than remote workers. This belief is in direct contradiction to an OWL lab survey, which concluded that 75% of the remote workers either had the same or increased productivity.
Such notions and beliefs are inconducive to the modern hybrid work setting, as data has proven that proximity bias actually harms efficiency. It inhibits effective collaboration and causes employees to feel ignored and undervalued by their superiors. Naturally, this negatively impacts operations and often even leads to reduced employee retention and performance. As such, it is extremely important that organizations do not foster or allow proximity bias to exist in the workforce.
Strategies that work to eliminate proximity bias swiftly.
- Change starts at the top
In order to reverse the effects of proximity bias, there needs to be a shift in how productivity is understood and perceived. Instead of a timesheet, managers now need to focus on the qualitative results delivered to employees to get an actual and true representation of their work.
This needs to begin at the top with board members, who then influence managers and supervisors. A top-down approach like this is essential to bringing out long-lasting change. Additionally, managers and executives should be encouraged to participate in hybrid work too. When employees see their managers and executives embracing the model, it reinforces the message that their remote work is valued and valid too. This also helps eliminate the stigma around working remotely and anxiety in global/remote workforces.
- Maintain parity among office and remote workers
Disparity among employees is where proximity bias stems from in many workplaces. Leaders need to be cautious about the formation of tiered workforces, where office workers may be perceived as favorites. A tell-tale sign of this is when office workers get more recognition and growth opportunities than their counterparts who work remotely. According to a survey of over 1000 employees, 20% felt that they received less recognition after starting work remotely. Leveling the playing field for all employees fosters an environment where the employees can focus on their work instead of proving their dedication and worth.
- Be objective in evaluations and promotions
Oftentimes, despite being productive at work, remote employees experience fewer growth opportunities. One of the reasons for this is the traditional outlook on productivity, where it is equated with facetime instead of the work produced. According to a study, despite having 13% more productivity, remote workers saw a reduction in chances of promotions. Moreover, according to data, the number of promotions during the pandemic when compared to pre-pandemic has almost reduced to half. Companies should see such trends as a roadblock and perform objective performance evaluations. Instituting frameworks that measure qualitative rather than quantitative is the first step in the right direction.
- Develop an inclusive culture that ensures every voice is heard
Inclusivity sits at the heart of eliminating proximity bias from the workplace. Alienation occurs when not all voices are given an equal say in matters that concern them. This then becomes particularly problematic for new hires, who may feel rejected and unwelcomed.
Here, the key problems are:
- Inadequate recognition received by peers
- Low inculcation of company values among the workforce
According to a survey, peer recognition for new employees dropped to 34% and there was a 20% drop in company value recognition. This harms cohesion and managers should start enforcing communication protocols for every employee in their team. These should be unique and could even be a subset of the buddy system. This also reduces the chances of miscommunication and increases employee satisfaction.
Apart from office inclusion, social inclusion can be promoted through team-building exercises. These may happen on-site or virtually. Remote workers can participate in these along with their colleagues, which then fosters better relations among the employees.
- Eliminate micromanaging, an ally of proximity bias
While micromanagement is not practical in any setting, it has even less merit in a fully remote environment. But it often reappears in hybrid workforces. This can be harmful to the organization because leaders that are in the habit of micromanaging have greater tendencies toward proximity bias. This is because their performance measurement may heavily rely on their observations. While this may happen naturally in the office, remote workers will find it distracting as managers institute excessive reporting and conduct frequent check-ins.
Ultimately, this causes a dip in productivity. Another issue with micromanaging is that these leaders may also equate productivity based on the amount of time spent logged on or in the office. This is the furthest thing from an accurate measure. To eliminate micromanagement, leaders must establish clear goals and expectations for their employees and managers. This deters micromanaging as work gets done without constant checks.
- Use technology to boost collaboration and camaraderie in the workforce
In hybrid workforces, technology is the key driver of work but it isn’t limited to just work. The same technology can be used to curb proximity bias. To start, managers can begin by having meetings in a virtual setting, even for office workers. This standardizes practices, which is a vital step in preventing proximity bias. Do note that digital communication has its problem areas. For one, it can foster an informal relationship between the employees, which may adversely impact morale.
One of the best ways to tackle proximity bias is to nip it in the bud. Be conscious about inclusion from the get-go and cultivate the associated culture. If employees feel that they are heard and valuable to the organization, it negates the need to prove their worth. This in turn allows them to commit to their work and minimize anxiety about favoritism in the workplace. Organizations can also periodically survey their employees to understand whether the workplace is free of proximity bias.
Though this may seem like a challenging task, it can be achieved with several efforts to make the workplace more inclusive, diverse, and equitable. Talent500 can help you get AI-powered insights to define modern recruitment strategies and seamlessly build your globally distributed team. Request a consultation and learn more about our talent management features and benefits that can help maximize efficiency and minimize attrition.