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How to Avoid Proximity Bias in the Workplace: 7 Solutions

Jul 21, 2022

In the past, a company’s sense of community, identity, and culture were developed through working in the office. Think about workplace comedies like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, and Veep. It’s not surprising, then, that proximity bias–or viewing coworkers you see in the office more often as more favorable–is becoming a challenge for remote-first and hybrid companies.

For co-workers living in the same city, spending time together at happy hours, sporting games, and other activities can be a huge part of the employee experience. In the past, the workplace was where many people met their future partner and life-long friends.

Here’s a look at how proximity bias sneaks up on remote workers, as well as what steps employers can take to mitigate its negative effects.

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias is the unconscious preferential treatment to workers due to their physical location being closer to the immediate vicinity of management and leadership. Today, this tendency negatively impacts remote employees looking to build their careers without being in-office everyday.

Proximity bias and management

It’s not uncommon for managers or leadership members to view employees who work in the office more favorably than remote team members.

Call it the halo effect or accidental favoritism. Many HR leaders still place a premium on physical proximity to the office.

Some assume they can’t trust people they don’t see working. Others just assume that everyone is more productive in an office setting, even when employee visibility in the office doesn’t necessarily correlate with productivity or performance.

What are the negative effects of proximity bias?

Small everyday interactions add up, especially when your workforce is distributed. Without even realizing it, proximity bias can ruin a company’s vision, leading to lower retention, high burnout, less strategic decisions, and less overall competence in the workforce. You don’t want your in office team’s remote counterparts to feel less valued because they work from home.

Proximity bias examples

Proximity bias tends to happen subconsciously. In other words, management and leadership don’t always realize they favor employees just because they work alongside one another in the office.

  • Offering special projects to people working in the office

  • Giving a raise or promotion to an employee because they work in-person

  • Continuing a conversation in the office after a Zoom meeting ends

  • Spending more time online chatting with teammates in your time zone

  • Inviting local team members to a happy hour

Employees working in the office might have easier access to information about company news that was not broadcasted on Slack or Microsoft Teams. While oftentimes not intentional, these side conversations can help certain employees get further ahead.

Why proximity bias is a diversity and inclusion issue

For employees that need accommodations, remote work has been more than revolutionary. Young parents can better navigate childcare. Immunocompromised folks can avoid unnecessary public gatherings, reducing their chance of developing long Covid.

As hybrid teams map out their approach to remote work, they want to make sure they are developing policies that don’t punish employees who are not able to commute into the office.

Solutions to proximity bias

The remote work revolution has made it easier than ever for companies to recruit and retain top talent. However, you will want to implement measures or programs that help mitigate the negative impacts of proximity bias. Here’s what executive leaders and other managers can do to mitigate proximity bias.

  1. Planning company-wide meetups. For instance, you can plan in-person meetings, known as off-sites. You might plan virtual weekly or bi-weekly coffee chats where employees from across the organization are paired together and encouraged to have a conversation not only about work.

  2. Setting benchmarks for salary and promotion. Raises and promotions should be determined by results and objective criteria, not familiarity. Promotions for each role should follow a merit-based system, based on data and success.

  3. Making in-person attendance optional for all employees. Companies need to work on putting together guidelines and building operating models that prevent proximity bias from negatively impacting their team. Requiring some employees to work in the office can create an unhealthy balance, for instance. Progressive employers are implementing policies that mandate all employees must work from home at least some of the time.

  4. Creating a space for informal events and check-ins. Rather than putting time on the calendar for only work-related events, find ways to get to know your employees through virtual mixers, game nights, or holiday parties.

  5. Writing everything down online. Invest in collaboration tools and productivity software. If you say something relevant about the company or business to a teammate in-person, make sure that you also write that information in a Slack channel or email. All stakeholders should have access to pertinent information. This can help level the playing field.

  6. Rethinking the office. Treat the office as a co-working space, not as a place where certain knowledge is kept. HR can create training materials and a strategy around what a remote workplace looks like.

  7. Remembering your employees are human. Whatever you do, don’t let “out of sight, out of mind” become your company policy.

Why it’s worth it to address proximity bias

Working from home is quickly becoming the new norm. Not all companies will return to the office. Some people will only know their colleagues and customers through Zoom calls and emails.

For companies that can successfully acknowledge proximity bias and propose solutions to mitigate its negative effects, the results can be astounding. Bringing together employees from different cities, or even countries, can help companies develop superior products and deliver better services.

The rise of remote work and the hybrid workplace

Before Covid-19, most employees demonstrated their commitment to a company or business by commuting to the office 5 days per week. Proximity bias helped those working in person get ahead.

Even before remote work took over, proximity bias started becoming a major headache for HR as companies began opening offices in different cities. Business leaders started to favor the teammates they saw on a weekly basis. Now, companies that embrace the hybrid-working model need to find new and innovative solutions to address inequalities between fully remote and in-person employees.

Why Via

Another step you can take to prevent proximity bias in your global workforce is ensuring that employees in each country receive comparable best-in-class benefits. If you’re hiring employees abroad, working with an EOR service provider like Via can help you provide locally curated benefits packages that make employees across the globe feel valued.

It’s true. Companies want to hire employees around the world, but are unsure of how to navigate onboarding. Via makes hiring international talent seamless. With our-easy-to-use platform, Via manages the local HR processes for employment such as work visas and permits, benefits, payroll, background checks, and more. Our team of local labor lawyers and on-the-ground experts ensure that your company remains compliant while expanding abroad. As your employer-or-record/entity, Via assumes full responsibility for employment liability, so that you can focus on what matters: recruiting and managing your team.

With Via’s transparent pricing, you can pay full-time employees or contractors across borders with no hidden set-up fees, no foreign exchange or transaction fees, and no minimums–start with 1 employee and scale up at your own pace.

Need help building your global team?

FAQ

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias is the subconscious act of valuing people who are physically present over those who work remotely.

How do you prevent proximity bias?

You can prevent proximity bias by ensuring that everything is written down, making hiring and promotion decisions based on benchmarks, and planning company events.

What is proximity in the workplace?

Proximity in the workplace is being near to other people physically.

What is the impact of proximity bias in a hybrid work environment?

Employees working remotely might miss out on key opportunities, such as better projects and crucial group discussions.

Gerardo Photo
Gerardo Mañón Carús
I am the Global Head of Growth at Via.Work since May 2022. I like to...

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