PROXIMITY BIAS – What Is It and How To Prevent It

By:  Kim Adamson

What is proximity bias?  Proximity bias in the workplace describes how people in positions of power tend to treat workers who are physically closer to them more favorably, and stems from the outdated assumption that employees working remotely are less productive than those who work in the office.

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue, much of the workforce is still working remotely or in hybrid work arrangements.  Research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that managers are less likely to assign high-profile, interesting tasks and projects or to provide development opportunities to remote employees and more likely to provide assignments to staff based on familiarity with the team they see in the office.  In addition, many managers continue to believe they cannot trust remote employees to get their work done.  Another concern is that remote employees often do not receive communications as timely as onsite employees, thereby causing remote employees to be unintentionally excluded from receiving important information and attending meetings.  One of the causes for delayed important communications for remote staff is also related to employees living in different time zones; for example, employees in the eastern time zone receive information earlier than employees in the pacific time zone, when they may not even be at their desks.

Proximity bias combined with unconscious bias is also causing less diversity in the workforce.  Gartner and Future Forum surveys have indicated that minorities and marginalized groups are less likely to return to the office post-pandemic for various reasons.  Women are more likely than men to continue remote or hybrid work arrangements to take advantage of the opportunity to manage child caretaking responsibilities.  For many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office, the ability to work remotely often means better mental health and fewer worries about safety and feelings of inclusion.  The Future Forum Pulse survey conducted on January 25, 2022, indicates that 86% of Hispanic/Latinx, 81% of Asian/Asian American, and Black employees prefer hybrid or remote work arrangements compared to 75% of White employees.

Proximity bias can affect employee performance, promotions, career growth, team camaraderie, and morale.  Proximity bias can affect a company’s culture and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) efforts.  Proximity bias can affect a company’s overall success.

How do you prevent proximity bias?  Companies need to pay attention to whether proximity bias is occurring and take proactive and inclusive steps to manage and avoid bias, prejudice, and discrimination, and ensure equal treatment for all employees, regardless of working onsite or remotely.  It is necessary to find more inclusive ways of working.  Some options to consider are:

  • Human Resources staff can help educate leaders and managers to recognize bias and promote inclusivity and diversity among all staff.
  • Ensure communications are delivered to all staff regardless of location or time zone. Remote staff cannot be an afterthought.
  • Establish core hours for remote and onsite employees to promote collaboration and agreed-upon times for all company, department, and team meetings and events that allow remote workers to participate.
  • Leaders must ensure that necessary staff is involved in important discussions and decision-making regardless of work location.
  • Managers must stay informed about their staff to develop a cohesive team environment. They need to ensure equal and timely access to communications, individual one-on-one, team meetings, and development opportunities.  Gartner research shows that teams with high levels of intentional collaboration are 47% more likely to be highly innovative.
  • Make sure all staff, remote or onsite, have the tools and resources needed to do their jobs (i.e., IT infrastructure, equipment, software, shared access to company documents, etc.)
  • While virtual meeting fatigue exists for everyone, whether onsite or remote, it is essential to encourage employees to turn cameras on to maintain a connection with staff.
  • Managers must assign work projects based on employees’ capabilities and skills and not show favoritism because an employee is onsite. Employee performance should be measured by quality and output.
  • Human Resources can assist managers with the skills needed to manage remote and hybrid teams to ensure fairness in the performance evaluation process, promotions, and training and development opportunities. Managers need to rebuild employees’ trust with timely and transparent communications, so they understand why decisions are made about their jobs and performance.
  • Addressing proximity bias can assist in a company’s DEIB efforts in attracting, engaging, and retaining staff.
  • Benefits and perks should always be provided equally to remote and in-person employees.
  • Make sure remote employees do not feel isolated and do not have an “always on” attitude to ensure they are seen and included. Encourage work-life balance and taking time off.
  • Review handbooks, policies, and procedures to ensure they address remote and hybrid work arrangements.

It is critical for companies to purposefully address proximity bias to promote fairness, inclusivity, and diversity among all staff.  The impact of not doing so can result in poor employee performance and productivity, low staff engagement, and high turnover, and can impact a company’s culture, success, and bottom line.