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Addressing the proximity bias in a hybrid workplace


Organisations are currently faced with the day-to-day logistical challenges of balancing remote and in-person teams. However, there is also a new issue of addressing the biases managers may hold toward in-person and remote work.


Proximity bias is a psychological phenomenon of falsely assuming people are more productive when they’re in the office, close to their superiors. As a result of the pandemic, the lines of what defines proximity are evolving, leaving leaders in search of new ways to ensure that those who choose to work from home remain both an included part of the workforce and on track for promotions.


Out of sight out of mind?


Prior to the pandemic, many employees experienced presenteeism - the pressure to be in the office for longer hours under the false notion that presence equals productivity. In the new world of hybrid work, proximity bias is now becoming an emerging issue as employees start to wonder how they can get noticed and recognised if they are not as visible as their office-based co-workers; whilst leaders face the challenge of overcoming the unconscious bias of favouring one group over the other.


This bias can cause leaders to excuse the poor performance of those in their proximity, while not properly valuing the skills and expertise of those who work remotely. Such favouritism can break down trust and negatively impact productivity, leaving employees who don’t see their output adequately acknowledged unmotivated, leading to workplace loneliness.


Due to proximity bias, 70 percent of UK city workers believe that being physically present in the office will increase their likelihood of promotion. The same research shows that 82 percent of workers would like their employer to revamp their employee benefits and perks, such as office drinks, socials, and travel to work schemes.


Even though most evidence that remote workers are at a disadvantage is anecdotal, a study by Stanford University suggests they are less likely to be promoted compared to their peers who are based in the office. In the experiment, researchers randomly assigned workers at a large travel agency in Shanghai to work remotely or in the office for nine months and whilst the remote workers were 13 percent more productive, putting in more hours and making more calls per minute, they were promoted about half as often as their in-office peers.


Creating an inclusive workplace


Leaders today face the challenge of setting up their people for success, regardless of their location. Addressing employee needs and putting everyone in the company on a level playing field is not a simple task and will require empathy, creativity, and commitment to building an inclusive environment where everyone receives the recognition they’ve earned for their contribution.


The proximity bias is interlinked with diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as it might impact specific groups – such as people with disabilities who might find it easier to work from home, or female workers who are more likely to ask for flexible and remote working as statistically, they are more involved with childcare.


One of the bigger factors that could drive inequality between remote and office-based workers is proximity to company leaders, who are more likely to be in the office. But when leaders are themselves working remotely, it lessens the perceived advantage of getting face time with decision-makers in the office and makes communication more balanced.


At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.