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What is proximity bias and how can leaders avoid it affecting their hybrid workforce?

By Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays

Across the world, offices are reopening after the pandemic forced many of us to work from home for long periods of time. The shift to a hybrid model, where employees split their time working from home and the office, is seen as the future for many of us.

There are many advantages for both the employee and the employer with this new model.

However, it also brings challenges that business leaders need to tackle. One such challenge that we may not even know is happening, is falling into “proximity bias.”

Proximity bias is where we give preferential treatment to those nearest us and is by no means a new phenomenon. Traditionally it may have been manifest in the workplace by how close someone sits to the leadership team.

In the new world of work, the meaning of proximity bias has evolved to relate to those who work from the office more than their colleagues who work remotely.

It is a cognitive bias, a natural human reaction that means our brains may misinterpret the information around us.

For this update, I want to highlight the dangers of proximity bias to our working lives and how leaders can avoid it.

The dangers of proximity bias in the workplace

The first thing to note is that hybrid working is here to stay for very many of us. It is what people want and business leaders have to accept this and make sure their hybrid work plans have been properly thought through. I have given advice on how to do this in a recent blog update.

As Hays found in the FY21/22 ANZ Salary Guide: “79% of respondents said flexible work practices are important when they next look for a new job. Furthermore, only 7% of skilled professionals who worked remotely during the pandemic wish to return to the workplace fulltime.”

In the Hays Ireland 2022 Salary Guide, we learned that: “Of those currently working in a hybrid model, the vast majority (76%) say their work-life balance is better, compared to working in an office full-time.”

It is clear that our employees, and potential employees, are embracing this as a preferred way of work and businesses need to recognise this.

Figures above from Hays FY21/22 ANZ Salary guide

Lower standard of work

There are many dangers that proximity bias brings to the workplace and simply assuming it is not happening in your own business is unrealistic. One obvious danger is the subconscious exclusion of people from having the opportunity to work on big projects generated from the centre, or working on a major new client account. This exclusion can result in a poorer standard of work and wrongful or misguided promotions.

Unsettled employees

Unhappy and disengaged workers often leads to resentment within your workforce, as well as workplace loneliness. I’ve spoken previously about the Great Resignation, the realisation from a record number of people that they’ve had enough and then quit. 

This shows little sign of slowing down. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the USA reported that 4.3 million people had quit their jobs. While that is down slightly from the previous month, it is still close to the record set in November 2021. The threat of resignation is not going away.

An erosion of trust can lead to unengaged staff, and this can be costly. In the UK, studies have found that disengaged workers contribute to £52-70 billion a year in lost productivity. As highlighted in this Forbes article: “Engaged teams have lower turnover, 21% greater profitability, 17% higher productivity and 10% higher customer ratings than disengaged teams.”

Depleted diversity

Allowing proximity bias to embed in your hybrid work model can also destroy diversity, a proven benefit to businesses. For some, commuting to a physical office is a difficult task. According to a previous Hays report, women are more likely to play a greater role in childcare, which might make working full time in an office environment difficult.

Hybrid working therefore helps these groups. If you are showing favourable treatment to workers in the office, you can cause a negative impact on your workforce diversity.

Ultimately proximity bias leads to wrong hiring and retention decisions and poorer business performance. So, what can leaders do to avoid this?

How to avoid proximity bias at work

The first thing to do is recognise there could be a problem but also understand the world has changed. The wrong answer is to force everyone back into the office.

Promote hybrid working

Be sure you lead by example. Are you promoting a hybrid work environment, but coming into the office every day? Remember, action speaks louder than words and people look to their leaders’ own approach to interpret what is really valued. So, if you are coming in everyday, work from home sometimes and show others that you trust and value their input when working away from the office. It will likely require you to adjust your own schedule to make the best possible use of office time and remote-working time. However, my own personal experience is that a well-designed schedule actually improves my own productivity and I get more useful things done.

Nadia Vatalidis, VP of people at HR software provider Remote, has also advised that HR teams should create policies and guidelines on flexible working, to help combat proximity bias and its dangers.

Hold inclusive meetings

It is important to ensure you are inclusive in your thinking and interactions. When hosting an important meeting, no matter where the participants are based, everyone should feel included. It can be easy to focus more of your attention on those who are in the same room as you. It is easier for them to speak up than those joining on Teams or Zoom, and conversations can descend into one held solely in the room with a cast of observers watching on the screen.

It might be that you therefore make a case for important meetings to be held virtually, even if you are in the office, as that means everyone is on a level playing field. If that’s not possible, be aware of how inclusive you are being of the whole group.

Importantly, make sure business critical decisions are not being made in one meeting. If an idea comes to light between you and others who are in the office that day, arrange a follow-up with all of those working remotely. 

Invest in updated technology

To do this, you need to ensure you are using the right technology. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have added features to their meeting platforms to address hybrid working. As explained in this World Wide Technology article: “Cisco Webex launched a new capability called “People Focus,” which uses machine learning and AI technology to individually re-frame in-person meeting participants who are spread across a meeting room. This gives every participant equal space on screen and provides remote employees with a better view to track who is speaking.”

Engage your employees

Asking your workforce how they feel about proximity bias will enable you to understand if the problem exists, and to what extent. As noted by Owl Labs: “Some questions you may want to use this as an opportunity to ask your employees, regardless of if they work primarily in the office or remotely, include:

  • Do you feel you are affected by proximity bias?
  • Have you ever been impacted by proximity bias?
  • Do you believe yourself and your co-workers are treated differently depending on where you work from each day?
  • Do you believe that on-site workers are prioritized over remote workers?”

The world of work has changed almost immeasurably since the pandemic. In my entire career, I have never seen such seismic shifts in working patterns as have happened in the last two years. 

As we get to grips with how best to manage our new hybrid way of working, we have to be open-minded to issues such as proximity bias. You may think it does not affect your company, but how do you really know?

Being aware of the dangers and the solutions to proximity bias are crucial for leaders to maintain a productive, effective and engaged workforce.

I hope this article has made you consider whether proximity bias is a problem in your offices. I’d be interested to hear if you think it is an issue and share how you plan to combat it. Join the conversation on LinkedIn here.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.

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