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Proximity bias explained: Everything you need to know

Proximity bias is an emerging type of cognitive bias that threatens remote workers. Learn how to mitigate this mindset based on outmoded standards.

"Out of sight, out of mind" is a remote worker's nightmare, but it holds some truth. If managers don't physically see you working in the office, it can put you at a disadvantage.

Proximity bias describes the tendency of leadership to show favoritism or preferential treatment to employees that are close to them physically. Managers affected by proximity bias might view remote workers as less committed than their in-office counterparts -- a fear of what is sometimes called "shirking from home."

A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that two-thirds of supervisors overseeing remote workers said they believed they were more replaceable than on-site workers. The survey also showed that 42% of supervisors sometimes forgot about remote workers when assigning tasks.

Proximity bias isn't always intentional, as with any type of cognitive bias. It's understandable that people will prioritize what they see over what they don't. Still, managers need to actively work to mitigate it.

Why is proximity bias a problem?

Proximity bias is ultimately an access problem. Access problems are also opportunity problems. Proximity bias cuts employees off from the people and resources that they need to do their jobs well, eliminating opportunities for growth. These inequities have individual and organizational repercussions.

The most immediate issue with proximity bias is that it puts remote workers at a disadvantage. At an individual level, proximity bias can hamper opportunities for advancement and career growth and have a negative effect on employee well-being. From an employee's perspective, being affected by proximity bias can be demoralizing and leave them feeling voiceless.

Aside from being unfair to the individual, proximity bias is bad for business. At an organizational level, proximity bias can harm employee retention and cause businesses to underutilize resources. Feeling undervalued might cause an employee to value their work less and be less productive. Employees have many options and will change jobs if they feel like they aren't appreciated. Businesses also miss out on all the capabilities that remote workers have to offer if they neglect them.

Examples of proximity bias

Proximity bias occurs as a natural consequence of remote and hybrid work models and manifests in a variety of ways. Some of the ways proximity bias might manifest in a work environment include the following:

  • On-site employees receive information before remote employees.
  • On-site employees receive higher performance ratings unrelated to their objective performance metrics.
  • Remote staff is excluded from meeting invitations with their in-person co-workers.
  • In-office workers are given more perks than remote workers, such as free lunch or access to better technology.
  • Remote employees are passed over for raises, promotions and development opportunities.
  • On-site employees are favored in the decision-making process. A familiar face might come to mind more quickly than one not regularly seen.
  • In-office employees have access to valuable interactions and relationship-building opportunities.
  • Remote employees in other time zones are excluded from meetings scheduled for the on-site employee time zone.
  • Remote employees face technical challenges and contribute less during hybrid meetings.

How to mitigate proximity bias

Leadership needs to actively mitigate proximity bias and give remote workers equal weight, opportunities and consideration. Below are some ways this can be done:

  • Acknowledge bias. The first step to creating a more equitable work experience is acknowledging that remote workers might be receiving unfair treatment. Upper management should determine if and where proximity bias is happening.
  • Implement equitable and clear performance metrics. Clearly defined criteria will help management remain objective in employee assessments. Decision-makers should prioritize deliverables, collaboration and innovation over employee location.
  • Keep an objective record. Look at projects happening across the organization and measure workers' ability to meet performance goals. Note whether work on these projects is happening in office or remotely, and analyze results to see if that makes any difference in the quality of work.
  • Build trust. Allow employees to choose where they want to work and when. Doing this demonstrates trust that they will get their work done and encourages a reciprocal relationship where employees feel respected and want to live up to expectations. Proximity bias can be unintentional, and in many cases goes unspoken, so it is important to take intentional steps to build trust and let workers know they are supported.
  • Frequent check-ins. Implementing more frequent lower-stakes performance reviews and check-ins can help make up for the lack of face time with remote workers. This helps leaders trust workers and helps workers know that leaders are aware of their work. In this way, each party has a clear indication of their standing at all times. Some tips for smaller check-ins or performance evaluations include the following:
    • Implement smaller iterative goals, such as writing one article every two days.
    • Ask for progress updates prior to the check-ins.
    • Coach the employee through any challenges they might be facing during check-ins, such as missing deadlines or questions that can't be answered via text.
  • Advocate for policy change. Management has access to the people who make decisions. In meetings with those people, management should advocate for policies that support remote workers, even if it means experimenting with new policies. One example is making one day a week a mandatory work-from-home day to alleviate pressure to return to the office. If higher management is laissez-faire about work policy, use that opportunity to create rules that work best for specific teams and their needs. A team of software developers might have different needs than salespeople. Over time, the smaller check-ins will reveal information about how the team works best, and management can structure rules around that.
  • Invest in training. Train management to facilitate the best possible remote learning experiences for workers.
  • Build an inclusive culture. Use conversations about the hybrid work environment to help teammates bond over that shared experience instead of isolating them. Despite different employee needs, everyone is working toward the same goal from the same foundation, and everyone wants to succeed.
  • Invest in technology. Better collaboration software gives employees a better remote experience and facilitates asynchronous collaboration. Team collaboration software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Microsoft Loop or Slack can improve the remote worker experience through video calling, file sharing, chat, presence awareness tools and project management tools. VPNs are also necessary to secure remote workers' connections and give them access to enterprise applications outside the campus network.

Managers aren't solely responsible for eliminating proximity bias. A lot of the onus is on leadership, but employees should also do their part to build and maintain trust using the tools afforded to them. Being available to collaborate and communicate is essential for both managers and employees. It is important to stick to agreed-upon policies when they are working -- and to communicate swiftly and clearly when they are not.

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