Overcoming Proximity Bias in the Workplace 

Jul 11, 2023 • 6 min read

A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management discovered that two-thirds of supervisors overseeing remote workers said they believed they were more replaceable than on-site workers. Additionally, the survey revealed that 42% of supervisors inadvertently overlooked remote workers when assigning tasks. 
What is proximity bias? 

Proximity bias, also referred to as nearness bias or propinquity bias, is a type of cognitive bias often wired into instinctive human decision-making and general interaction with the aim of forming closer bonds with individuals who are physically nearer. 

Why should HR departments be watchful of proximity bias? 

HR departments and managers have a pivotal part to play when promoting fairness and an equitable work environment. Proximity bias is an all too familiar challenge that leadership, managers and employees of varying positions regularly face. And to ensure a level playing field, it is particularly important for HR professionals to pay attention and guard against proximity bias by actively working to address it. Many HR departments are said to be running comprehensive training programs in an effort to identify strategies that will effectively combat proximity bias. But it seems that there is a long way to go before proximity bias at work is driven out entirely. 

Why do companies need to have an open mind around the subject of hybrid and remote work? 

The discussion of remote and hybrid working remains a hot topic for organisations across the board. But for many, the decision to pursue and attract the very best talent requires leadership in business to compromise and take into consideration their employees’ preferred work settings. 

Many organisations have called for a complete return to the office, while others have settled on a flexible hybrid model or fully remote option. However, a number of employees who work from home through choice or circumstance are said to have felt that those who are more present in the office tend to be favoured and given preferential treatment over those who work remotely.  

Managers with a propensity for proximity bias may view remote workers as less committed and feel uncomfortable with overseeing the work of employees who are not physically present. 

Proximity bias is a common problem 

As with any kind of cognitive bias, proximity bias is a completely unintentional stance to take, and it’s understandable that some managers will have a tendency to prioritise what they see over what they do not.  

But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Proximity bias is a common problem that poses a great many issues in the workplace and should be actively challenged and overcome by businesses globally. 

Now that hybrid and remote working is widespread, proximity bias at work is significantly impacting areas such as hiring, promotion and performance reviews. 

Here are some signs to watch out for if you think your company could be suffering the effects of proximity bias

  1. Promotions and general acknowledgement of hard work are seemingly granted to those who put in regular appearances at the office and work closely with decision-makers.  
  1. On-site employees receive information before remote workers. 
  1. In-office workers have access to more perks than their remote working counterparts. 
  1. Remote employees in other time zones are not invited to meetings scheduled out of their working hours. 
  1. On-site employees receive preferential treatment at the time of important decision making. 
  1. Remote employees contribute less during virtual meetings. 
  1. On-site employees have better access to team-building opportunities and developmental training. 
  1. Remote workers experience far more technical problems that they try to solve themselves before appealing for help. 

Confronting the issue of proximity bias at work is a continuous effort that calls for shared cooperation in creating an inclusive and equitable workplace culture that serves everybody. 

Here, we share how you can implement small but necessary steps to ensure your business is evenly distributing rewards, acknowledgment and integral information: 

  1. First, educate yourself on the many indicators that suggest proximity bias is present at your company. 
  1. Set some equitable company objectives to work toward completing throughout the year. 
  1. Conduct regular surveys with a view to gaining feedback from both remote, hybrid and on-site workers regarding how satisfied they are with their daily setup and the support available to them. 
  1. Invest in training for leadership. Key decision-makers need to be educated on what creates the most productive working environment for remote employees as well as being fully aware of how best to support them on their career journey. 
  1. Schedule frequent informal check-ins to establish a level of trust between leadership and employees. Regular catch-up calls can also make up for the lack of real-time interaction. 
  1. Advocate for policy change. Employees need to feel heard, and different teams have different needs. So, it makes sense to experiment with existing policies to establish what works for your organisation and how to implement that change.  
  1. Invest in top-tier technology. Technical problems within the workplace are unavoidable, and being able to address home-based issues can add another layer of needless stress into the mix. Team collaboration software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Microsoft Loop or Slack can significantly  improve the remote working experience thanks to seamless video calling, file sharing, instant chat, online presence and project management tools. VPNs are also essential for securing remote workers’ connections. Resolving technical issues promptly and smoothly, regardless of the individual employee’s whereabouts is key to a successful remote working environment. 
  1. Ensure that remote workers always feel welcome and host regular social events with as much notice as possible. This gives everybody enough time to prepare for their journey and get childcare and other such commitments covered ahead of time. 

Organisations across the world are becoming increasingly committed to embracing inclusivity and equity, and subsequently fostering a safe, non-judgmental and fully supportive workplace culture available to both on-site and remote workers. Whatever position you hold in your company, we are all equally responsible for eliminating proximity bias. 

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