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Overcoming Proximity Bias in Remote and Hybrid Teams

Are your remote workers being overlooked? Learn how to overcome proximity bias in the workplace.

Kathleen O'Donnell
Content Contributor for Cooleaf
Contributing Experts
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In recent years, the prevalence of remote employment has shown how much work could be conducted from somewhere other than the office. At first, that knowledge sounded the death knell for the norm of employees working from the office five days per week, every week. Half of all remote-capable employees in the U.S. were working a hybrid schedule in 2023.

A hybrid work model has many benefits. It allows employees to spend some time in the office building connections while also saving themselves several commutes every week, to name just a few. But there are also real downsides employers need to consider in hybrid workplaces, and the most significant drawback is proximity bias.

In This Article

Understanding Proximity Bias

Proximity bias refers to the tendency of people in leadership positions to favor on-site employees who are physically close to them. Employees who frequently work remotely are often seen as less productive, even when the opposite is true. As a result, remote team members are overlooked by managers and leaders.

This bias is very real and quite pervasive. According to SHRM research, two-thirds of supervisors of remote workers admitted they believe remote employees are more replaceable than onsite workers, and 42% said they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks.

Proximity bias isn’t something managers and employers act on intentionally — it’s subconscious favoritism for the people you’re regularly in close contact with. It’s an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” situation- a common cognitive bias pervasive in humanity. However, that natural preference can have significant negative impacts on your employees and your organization, so it’s important to acknowledge it, address it, and root it out.

Examples of Proximity Bias

Promotion Opportunities: Managers may be more likely to consider employees who work in close physical proximity for promotions, development opportunities, or special projects, overlooking remote or off-site workers who are equally qualified.

Collaboration and Team Assignments: Teams formed based on physical proximity may inadvertently exclude remote workers, leading to missed opportunities for collaboration and diverse perspectives.

Informal Networking: Casual conversations and impromptu meetings that occur in physical office spaces can create opportunities for building relationships and social connections, inadvertently leaving remote workers out of the loop.

Performance Evaluation: Managers may unconsciously evaluate the performance of employees who work nearby more positively due to increased visibility while overlooking the contributions of remote workers who are not as physically present.

Decision Making: In meetings or discussions, physically present individuals may have more influence on decisions compared to those participating remotely, leading to biases in decision-making processes.

The Role of Proximity Bias in Hybrid Work Environments

Proximity bias is more prevalent in hybrid workplaces where employees don’t all work in person on the same days every week. For example, suppose your company requires employees to be in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. In that case, employees get the same amount of facetime with their colleagues, managers, and leaders. If every employee works remotely 100% of the time or in-office 100% of the time, they also get equivalent interaction.

The challenge arises when leaders see some of their employees in person often and others only on occasion. Proximity bias causes issues in organizations where employees have some flexibility in where and when they work. If one employee comes into the office four days per week while another comes in two days per week, those employees won’t get the same amount of manager attention without an intentional plan. This is amplified in asynchronous teams where remote team members may be based in different time zones and have little real-time communication.

Some organizations, seeing the impact of proximity bias, move to simply limit employee flexibility and autonomy and declare that all employees must be in the office on the same days, at the same time. Or they give up on hybrid work altogether at the risk of employee satisfaction.

Data show that employees strongly prefer hybrid work and flexibility. In the Gallup study cited above, nine in ten remote-capable workers prefer some remote work flexibility, and three in ten hybrid workers were highly likely to leave their jobs if they were not offered some flexibility. We can extrapolate from this that simply taking away the autonomy and flexibility that workers crave doesn’t improve your employee experience or retention rates.

A manager and employee in an office having a video meeting with remote colleagues based elsewhere.

Proximity Bias and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

One of the reasons proximity bias is so detrimental to organizations as well as individuals is that it disproportionately affects groups that are already disadvantaged in the workplace.

People of color and women, particularly working mothers, are opting for flexible work arrangements at higher rates than their white male peers. For people of color, a preference for working outside the office often reflects the microaggressions they experience in a typical office setting. For working mothers, more flexible work allows them to juggle the bulk of the childcare and housework that still falls on their shoulders.

If your company is not proactively and intentionally combating proximity bias, there’s a good chance you may be further entrenching inequalities in your workplace. This could detract from your company's progress in increasing diversity, inclusion, and equity if it’s not addressed carefully.

Strategies for Mitigating Proximity Bias in Remote Teams

So, how can you mitigate the effects of proximity bias in your hybrid workspace? There are vital steps human resources and leadership can take, starting with acknowledging that the problem exists.

Recognizing Proximity Bias

First, openly acknowledging a proximity problem allows your leadership team to tackle it effectively. More and more companies are waking up to this growing issue. Over four out of ten executives ranked potential inequities between remote and in-office employees as their top concern.

Use the plentiful data around the effects of proximity bias to make your leadership team and managers aware of why you’re working to solve this issue and why they can’t simply default to assigning promotions and exciting projects to their more in-person workers. Once that awareness is widespread and everyone is on board, you can address the issue.

Foster Data-Oriented Management

Rethinking your organization's values is the best way to combat proximity bias. Focus on metrics that make each employee’s contribution clear based on outputs, deliverables, innovation, and collaboration instead of Facetime and location.

This shift sounds small, but it can be very challenging, especially for managers who are used to managing by being physically present with the employee. Some manager training might be required to help your managers adjust to this new way of guiding and evaluating their teams.

Build Top-Down Hybrid Teams

Leaders must take the reins, align on the culture they want to build, and then lead the way with their actions. If they say it’s okay to come into the office only once or twice per week, but they’re in the office daily, those actions aren’t aligned with the principles they’ve espoused — and employees will notice. It becomes easy to assume that more in-person work equates to preferential treatment.

Consider having a mandatory work-from-home day for everyone, including leaders and managers, to set expectations and show commitment to every employee.

Prioritize Communication

Encourage managers of hybrid teams to set up quick, low-stakes check-ins with their direct reports regularly so they’re not missing out on those spontaneous meetings that used to happen around the water cooler. They can review progress on goals, ensure they’re aware of what each team member is working on, and offer a valuable opportunity for connection and coaching, regardless of where the employee works.

Establishing a universal mentoring program for new hires (including remote and in-office workers) can make everyone feel valued and included and help young employees and new hires immediately feel like valued parts of your community. Since it’s universal, no one is left out, no matter how frequently they’re in the office.

Finally, offering more innovative ways for employees to balance their work and personal lives can help everyone show up at their best.

  • Offer childcare subsidies (or even an on-site daycare), so working parents have more options.
  • Focus on rooting out unconscious bias so everyone feels comfortable in your office.
  • Give employees stipends to equip their home offices with ergonomic equipment and everything else they need to succeed.
  • Give your office space a refresh so it meets the needs of employees today.

Technology Solutions to Counter Proximity Bias

With the wealth of technological solutions to connect teams, managers, and leaders, you can (and should) invest in tools and technology that help bring your people together effectively.

Solutions include employee recognition software so that teams can celebrate accomplishments together. Remote and hybrid teams should also be supported by team collaboration tools such as Slack and Asana so they can work together efficiently and conferencing software, such as Zoom, so employees can participate fully in meetings no matter where they are.

Conclusion: Preventing Proximity Bias

Hybrid work is not a short-lived trend — it’s the future of work, and it’s here to stay as it allows employees to balance their work obligations with their personal lives more effectively. So, employers who want to retain and engage their employees will likely need to continue offering hybrid options. By extension, employers must also continue combating the effects of proximity bias.

Future-proofing your organization against proximity bias must begin now, and while this is a challenging task, it’s also exciting. Leaders today have a unique opportunity to create an even better company culture for the future. They should focus on bringing people together across the organization, treating everyone fairly, and focusing on measurable outputs and productivity instead of proximity.

A workplace that treats employees with respect and offers autonomy and connection regardless of where and how they work is an organization that’s ready for the future.

Kathleen O'Donnell
Content Contributor for Cooleaf
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Kathleen O'Donnell is a Content Contributor for Cooleaf and an employee communications specialist with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications focusing on employee culture and engagement. When she’s not writing about creating healthier workplace cultures, she’s drinking too much coffee and petting all the stray cats in her neighborhood in Athens, Greece.

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