Proximity bias – the culprit of hybrid work failure?
July 21, 2023
Hybrid work is gaining popularity as a promising solution that offers benefits for both companies and employees. Many organizations worldwide have swiftly embraced hybrid working policies to enhance workplace flexibility. However, despite the positive intentions, some companies argue that hybrid work combines the downsides of both remote and office work. Based on my experience working with numerous hybrid companies across the globe, I firmly believe that implementing hybrid work without a clear strategy and change management will not lead to success. This is primarily due to various challenges, including the presence of proximity bias.
It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where managers hold the belief that employees working in the office put in more effort compared to those working remotely. This assumption stems from the visible presence of office-based staff, leading supervisors to unconsciously perceive remote workers as less engaged and less productive. You must know that there is a natural inclination to favor individuals who are physically close or even “virtually close,” as managers may continually monitor remote workers’ online presence and mouse activity on their screens.
The human nature and proximity bias
Proximity bias can be traced back to our evolutionary history and the innate need for survival. In ancient times, humans lived in close-knit communities where cooperation and collaboration were vital for their survival. Within these communities, individuals naturally trusted and favored those who were physically nearby since they relied on them for protection, food, and essential resources. This inherent inclination toward people in close proximity is known as proximity bias, and it has persisted throughout human history. Remarkably, it continues to shape our modern society.
In addition to evolutionary factors, social psychology also contributes to proximity bias.
The social identity theory suggests that people derive part of their identity and self-worth from the groups they belong to. When individuals are physically close to others who share similar characteristics or experiences, they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and validation. Consequently, proximity bias can be reinforced, resulting in exclusion or discrimination. Moreover, it can significantly impact productivity, innovation, and diversity within an organization. Therefore, it is crucial for companies to recognize and address proximity bias to foster inclusivity and equity in the modern workplace.
Proximity bias can also be classified as a cognitive bias since it’s based on limited information and can lead to unfair treatment of individuals who are not physically close. People may assume that those in close proximity are more competent, trustworthy, or likable, even without substantial evidence to support these assumptions. Consequently, individuals who are not physically close might be perceived as less competent or less invested in their work, leading to their exclusion or discrimination.
Interestingly, based on my experience, it’s remote workers in hybrid teams that experience proximity bias. Team members who appear in the office more often or even all the time, usually don’t see the problem. Why? Because they’re not in the epicentre of it. Chit-chats, water-cooler conversations and staying physically close to their supervisors tend to impact their sense of belonging, chances to get promoted quickly or get a pay increase due to being a “hard worker”.
I’m sure you can think of numerous movies where people came into the office first and left last just to impress their bosses… And of course it worked.
Talk about the elephant in the room
Mitigating proximity bias within hybrid teams requires deliberate effort and a combination of various strategies. It is essential to first raise awareness of the issue throughout the organization, as we can’t fix something if we don’t understand its implications. Educating the entire team about proximity bias is a vital initial step toward its elimination and ensuring equal treatment among office-based and remote team members.
And let me give you a few tips about how you can start. Begin with guiding the people towards understanding others more. They should try to perform a simple exercise where they will literally imagine being in someone else’s shoes. What bottlenecks may others face? What struggles can they possibly experience? How do others perceive their behaviors and why? Let’s put everything on the table. You can even do this as an anonymous pulse survey.
Most importantly, make sure to distinguish different working setups in it. Don’t just perform an experience survey for 600 people who work in various circumstances and get excited about a great average result. Distinguish different employee groups and focus about what’s important to them. That’s not only how you will eliminate proximity bias but you’ll also embrace a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
Heal unconscious bias with consciousness
Understanding how proximity bias manifests in the hybrid workplace and its detrimental effects on productivity, collaboration, and diversity is key to overcoming it successfully. The goal is to implement a multifaceted approach that addresses the underlying causes of this bias.
If you’re an HR professional or part of the company leadership team, address this topic right away. Educate, educate and once again educate. Shaping an extraordinary working experience in a hybrid workplace is both a challenging and rewarding task. The time to start creating impact is now.
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