Proximity bias can be a big problem in hybrid teams. I can particularly observe this in “fresh” hybrid teams that used to work in office spaces before. This happens because some employees have returned to the office as part of the “old normal”. They are currently treating the possibility to work from home as a standard perk. At the same time, chit-chats in the hallway, conversations during coffee breaks and quick, verbal updates on open spaces happen all the time. And that’s both cool and concerning. Why? Because remote workers miss all these opportunities and they may feel left out.
One might say right now “So, that’s why hybrid work doesn’t really work”. Well, I must respectfully disagree. Excellence in hybrid teams can be achieved but this requires a well-prepared strategy and mutual awareness. Company leadership shouldn’t continue with a biased approach, believing that office workers are those that actually “WORK” and treat them better.
Before we start digging into solutions, let’s take a look at the definition of proximity bias first. According to Forbes it is “the phenomenon in which those who are physically closer to company leaders enjoy outsized influence and advancement opportunities relative to those who are hybrid or fully remote”.
Tips to stay connected and keep track
I was part of a hybrid team before it was called “hybrid”. Guess what!? I was one of the few remote workers and I did experience proximity bias. Feeling left out and getting really frustrated once in a while was my bread and butter. I would come to the office with updates and suggestions within several projects just to find out that “we’ve already done it”, “someone else is now working on it” or “we’ve changed our mind after a long conversation”. Not only wasn’t I included in all these decision-making steps but I also felt like I’ve wasted my time. I know that back then it wasn’t the company’s intention to make me feel this way but they just didn’t know how to deal with a remote worker…
But it wasn’t just them who could have collaborated with me a different way. I was also the culprit as I didn’t express my needs and expectations clearly. I should have introduced principles thanks to which the entire experience would have been much better for both sides. Years later, I’ve come up with a list of basic practices that many companies now happily use thanks my implementation.
Let me share them with you below:
- What’s not in writing, doesn’t exist
Informal chats are cool but you can’t possibly have a conversation about important stuff in the company kitchen if half of the team isn’t there. Spontaneous situations like this can happen (I GET IT!) but whenever that’s the case, suggest moving this to a video call or async messaging. Make sure it’s documented for future progress tracking.
- Track productivity and results – not presence
Physical presence can be deceiving. There are people who create a lot of noise around themselves so you can easily assume they’re super busy. What you must know is the difference between being busy and being smart. Set up precise goals and time frames for everyone. That’s how you’ll know who delivers on time, who doesn’t or if anyone is exceeding expectations.
- Invite remote workers to socials
Remote work or work from home doesn’t mean that employees JUST stay outside the office or away from their team forever. No. Regular in-person meetings are essential to ensure authentic connections, team spirit and a sense of belonging. That’s also why every mature remote-first company does it. Never meeting in real life isn’t a good idea.
- Expect proactivity from remote workers
This tip is crucial. Employees who mostly stay in the office should be aware of challenges that remote workers can face. Managers must encourage openness and a proactive approach towards collaboration. If something doesn’t feel right – let’s speak up and make it better.
- Team discipline works wonders
Yes, I mean it. It can’t possibly happen that a remote worker is waiting for a Slack response for 2 weeks (I unfortunately observe such situations…). At the same time, it’s unacceptable for a remote worker not to appear at a video call without informing anyone. Such situations cause tension for everybody. Make sure to distinguish a set of “Do’s and Dont’s” within the team. Let’s start truly respecting each other.
Fight for yourself because nobody else will
If you are a remote worker in a hybrid company and you’re unhappy – everything is in your hands. Open up, communicate, address issues, suggest solutions and just don’t stop! If you keep expressing disappointment just like that, many won’t understand you. That’s why you should make sure that you’re listened to and that your insights matter.
They key to better hybrid work is mutual awareness.
If you are a manager within a hybrid team, you should do everything to understand its needs and challenges. This is relatively easy if you engage your team members in the crucial change management process. I often suggest running SSC (“start, stop, continue”) sessions where everyone can speak up and see how this affects other people. That’s how you can build a sustainable, custom-made approach for your hybrid team.
And… if you’re a passionate office worker who believes that remote workers are just misfits who only “pretend to work” – you have a serious problem. You see, the world is changing and new ways of working are becoming reality. Hybrid teams are here to stay. There’s no way back as we’re all in the digital work era. The sooner you understand it, the better.