Preventing Proximity Bias in Today’s Remote Workforce
Face time. It matters.
Casual conversations in the elevator, by the water cooler, and in the hallway matter. Proximity builds relationships that are at the core of business. Today’s remote workers have little chance for physical proximity, which can result in missed opportunities.
Proximity bias is when employees in close physical proximity are favored over those who work remotely. To avoid it, we must recognize proximity bias and understand how to prevent it in today’s remote workforce.
Hidden Dangers of Proximity Bias
Every remote worker feels a certain level of disconnectedness. It is harder to connect with other humans through a screen. The tone of emails can be misconstrued. For all the benefits of remote work, it’s natural to feel left out or jealous when coworkers bond over lunch or happy hour.
Proximity bias favoritism can mean losing a promotion to someone who works in the office. It can have other far-reaching effects too. “Just like other forms of unconscious bias, proximity bias is not simply unjust and unfair: it’s actively bad for business. It hurts employee morale, retention, and productivity, and thus company bottom lines,” says Gleb Tsipursky in Harvard Business Review. “Moreover, given that women and people of color have a stronger desire for more remote hours per week, points out the dangers this bias poses to your DEI efforts.”
In 2021, over 800 supervisors were surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Forty-two percent of these supervisors said they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks. SHRM also reported that two-thirds (67%) of supervisors admitted that they believe remote workers are more replaceable than onsite workers. Does out of sight mean out of mind?
Examples of Proximity Bias
Proximity bias is often hard to detect. If a remote worker is intentionally excluded from an important meeting, he or she would likely never know. Promotions are partly subjective and not totally based on data or measurable qualifications.
More blatant examples of proximity bias may include:
- Projects repeatedly given to in-office workers over remote workers
- Communicating information differently to office workers than those working remotely
- Giving higher ratings or having different criteria for office workers vs. remote workers
- Giving positive reinforcement and praise only to in-office talent
- Making no effort to build personal relationships with remote workers (business.com)
This leaves remote workers wondering if they are hurting their own careers if they choose the option the company gave them to work remotely.
Ways to Lessen Proximity Bias
Being aware of proximity bias is the first step. Managers should take a step back to ask themselves if they treat remote workers the same as those in the office. This means a deep dive into analyzing communications and relationship building efforts.
Make a purposeful effort to get to know remote workers by setting up weekly phone calls or monthly social events for all workers to attend. Take an interest in the life of every employee.
Avoid office-personnel-only meetings. Establish mentorship programs between remote workers and those in-office. Provide all employees with opportunities to grow. Pick one day a month where everyone is in the office at once (if possible).
The bottom line is that proximity bias is bad for business and can lead to the loss of top talent. “Continually passing over remote employees for new projects and opportunities can cause them to feel less motivated and ultimately reduce job satisfaction and productivity,” says Skye Schooley. “If the bias goes on long enough, there’s a good chance your top remote talent will eventually kick you to the curb and seek employment elsewhere.”
Have you experienced proximity bias? If you are seeking a new remote opportunity, please contact the recruiters at Artemis Consultants.