What Should You Know About Proximity Bias?

Remote and hybrid operations are an increasing part of the business environment. There are certainly distinct advantages to be found as a result of this. Companies that embrace remote practices effectively can see greater productivity, improved employee satisfaction, and reduced overheads.

Unfortunately, there are also some challenges when it comes to this approach to operations. Among the key issues here is the potential for employee disengagement. There can be various influencers. Some of these will be the more obvious problems, such as insufficient communication protocols or disrupted collaborations. However, some of the most damaging for your business are those that might fly under the radar or be caused by subconscious actions. Proximity bias is often problematic for mixed in-office and remote workplaces.

So, what is proximity bias and how can you be active in avoiding its potential for disruption among your workforce? Let’s take a closer look at the concept.

What is Proximity Bias?

Put simply, proximity bias is the tendency for business leaders to demonstrate preferential treatment to the employees that are geographically closest to them. From the perspective of remote and hybrid operations, this means workers who are in the office environment on a full-time basis obtain advantages their distanced counterparts don’t. This is usually in the form of additional or better quality attention, resources, and opportunities.

To some extent, this is an understandable subconscious result. The old adage of “out of sight, out of mind” can ring true for both large corporations and small businesses. The employees and colleagues that leaders see every day are a constant feature of the company’s environment and thus are at the forefront of considerations. Though remote and hybrid employees are no less hardworking or committed to the business, they often draw the short straw as a result of proximity bias.

For the most part, proximity bias is unintentional. It’s an unconscious response to a new situation. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes informed or exacerbated by conscious biases. There is a popular but unfounded stance in many business circles that equates the desire to work remotely for all or part of the time as laziness or a lack of commitment to the business. This is, of course, grounded in outdated views of the workplace and the workforce itself. Nevertheless, it’s important to be cognizant of if or how such opinions may be present among members of leadership or management in your company.

What Impact Can Proximity Bias Have?

The primary impact of proximity bias is creating a further sense of disconnection for your remote and hybrid workers. They are already physically distanced from your business, consistent evidence that those in the office receive beneficial treatment creates additional psychological distance. In essence, your actions — unconscious or otherwise — alienates your remote workers. This can very quickly lead to disengagement, which in turn results in reduced productivity and increased turnover.

Proximity bias can also have a detrimental impact on the overall culture of your business. When one group of workers is given advantages the other doesn’t receive, this sends a clear message that your company doesn’t push for equality or inclusivity in your operations. You already know the strength of your principles and values influences the efficacy of your culture. By the same token, pervasive proximity bias weakens the ethical position of your company that can filter through your company, creating a toxic workplace. 

It’s also worth considering how proximity bias can affect your company’s ability to boost innovation and gain the competitive edge. One of the most valuable features of a remote or hybrid workforce is you’re able to tap into a diverse talent pool. Indeed, it can make your workplace more accessible to skilled professionals living with disabilities, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and those living abroad. This varied range of perspectives from a diverse workforce are considered to help drive innovation. If proximity bias is present in your company, this means you’re likely not providing the support your diverse remote and hybrid workers need to thrive. As such, your company is likely to lose out on the benefits of a fully engaged remote staff.

How Can You Avoid Proximity Bias?

Given how proximity bias can negatively affect the engagement, turnover, and morale of your workforce, it’s vital to take action. This can be difficult, as many contributing behaviors involved will be unconscious in nature. As such, your best approach is to put effective preventative measures in place to mitigate the potential for unconscious bias to arise. 

These should include:

Adjusting Your Hiring Practices

One of the areas proximity bias is most prevalent is in recruitment and hiring practices. There is frequently a tendency for managers and human resources (HR) departments to prioritize candidates that are able or willing to work in-office on a full time basis. Unfortunately, this type of short-sightedness not only unethically excludes a segment of candidates, but it also means you’re potentially missing out on talented professionals. You, therefore, need to adjust your hiring and recruitment practices to remove location from any resume reviews or applicant tracking system (ATS) filters. Instead, focus purely on applicant skill sets and experiences.

Adopting Inclusive Communication and Collaboration Protocols

Communication is among the primary hurdles for any business with in-office and remote employees. By failing to put the right tools and protocols in place to help your distant colleagues collaborate with their in-office colleagues and managers, you’re demonstrating proximity bias. As such, it’s important to set up clear systems and procedures for inclusive communications. Make certain all meetings are accessible via video call and that those joining virtually are given equal chances to speak. Utilize online collaboration software, like virtual whiteboards, to ensure remote and in-office employees can contribute meaningfully to project planning.    

Creating Appropriate Development and Reward Programs

Often, employee development and rewards protocols are designed for the traditional office environment. As a result, remote and hybrid workers don’t tend to have equal access to progression or see their efforts rewarded. It’s vital to put measures in place to provide development opportunities specifically geared toward distanced workers. This could include providing e-learning courses and creating a remote mentorship program. It should also involve including remote workers in celebrations by delivering treats to their homes. One of the most important outcomes of this is that it can also keep management and leadership focused on recognizing the positive contributions remote and hybrid workers bring to the table.   

Providing Education on Biased Behaviors

Among the most important resources you can provide your workforce is education. This extends to training on how to recognize and address biases in the workplace. Particularly as proximity bias is often unconscious, making certain everyone from entry level workers to executives understand how it arises and the potential consequences is vital. This should include the full range of behaviors that play a role in proximity bias, such as prejudiced decision-making and microaggressions.

Seeking Regular Insights

It’s difficult to take meaningful action against proximity bias without solid intelligence about how it features in your business. This is not something you can usually assess from a management perspective alone. Rather, you need to get direct insights from your employees. Create and issue performance feedback and employee experience surveys that allow you to understand how your workforce considers proximity bias to be present in your business. Don’t just issue these to remote workers, though. Involving your in-office employees in the process can also enlighten you about just how different employee experiences are between the 2 types of working environment. These surveys should be issued regularly, particularly as you start to make changes and need to measure the efficacy of these. It’s also worth keeping anonymous feedback channels open for workers to comfortably express their concerns about proximity bias at any time. 

Wrapping Up

Proximity bias can be a disruptive aspect of a mixed remote and in-office workforce. When left unaddressed, it can impact everything from employee engagement to the strength of your company culture. As such, it is vital to put preventative measures in place. This should include more inclusive communications protocols and educating your staff about biased behavior. By issuing regular surveys on the subject, you can gauge the prevalence of proximity bias in your business and maintain the efficacy of any changes you make.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can utilize Workify Engagement Intelligence Surveys to gain insights into the presence of proximity bias in your business, you can book a free 30 minute employee engagement consultation.