As more companies embrace hybrid work models—featuring a mix of in-person and remote work—many people managers and HR departments are dealing with the challenges of proximity bias, which is the tendency for people in positions of authority to show favoritism or give preferential treatment to employees who are closest to them physically.
In a survey of 10,000 white-collar workers conducted by Future Forum, a research consortium created by Slack, more than 4 out of 10 executives ranked the potential inequities between remote and in-office employees as their No. 1 concern. Even so, the survey found that bosses are twice as likely to prefer working in the office at least three days a week—and want their employees to be there, too.
"There's often a discrepancy between what managers want and what team members want. Many employees who have been working virtually want to stay remote, while the managers want them to come into the office at least part of the time," said Claire Sookman, a principal at Virtual Team Builders, a consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
"Some managers still feel like they can't trust people they can't see, even though they logically know they are working," she added.
However, “many employees who have been working from home for the last two years have proved they can do their jobs remotely and don’t want to go back into the office. From a workforce retention and workforce attraction perspective, it’s a solid approach,” said Virtual Team Builders consultant, Leigh Abbott-Leaman.
A key driver of proximity bias is the antiquated assumption that people are more productive in an office environment than at home, said Jason Liem, founder and leadership coach at MINDTalk Coaching in Oslo, Norway. "There is the tendency to overvalue colleagues that are physically present over those that are connected remotely," he said.
Ali Shalfrooshan, head of international assessment at UK-based PSI Talent Measurement International, added, "Proximity bias is a mental shortcut that allows managers to make decisions about performance, promotions and hiring based on familiarity rather than objective criteria. The result is that decisions are based on biases rather than knowledge or data."
Common examples of proximity bias include:
- Evaluating the work of onsite employees more highly than remote employees regardless of objective performance metrics.
- Offering the most interesting projects, assignments or development opportunities to onsite employees.
- Excluding remote employees from important meetings or not encouraging them to speak up on calls.
Understanding the Impact
Proximity bias has lurked in the background for years at organizations that employ remote workers, but it has moved to the forefront now that so many people are working remotely due to the pandemic.
"There's a lot of incentive for organizations to address proximity bias," said Marissa Reed, a manager at World Wide Technology (WWT) in St. Louis. "The elephant in the room is the Great Resignation. Employees have so much choice and won't stick around if they aren't being treated fairly."
Prior to the pandemic, proximity bias was considered a legitimate evaluation for advancement, but that's no longer true, said David Rosenblatt, principal solutions architect at WWT. "Now, if you're focused on self-promotion and self-interest, you're not doing your job," he said.
Lacy Gassner, a learning consultant within the HR team at WWT, said that historically, she has benefitted from proximity bias.
"When I first started working here, the HR team was headquarter-centric. It was a punch in the gut when we started working remotely because I had always benefitted from proximity bias," she said. "COVID really leveled the playing field. I learned that if you prioritize teamwork, it cuts down on the tendency to put yourself first by positioning yourself in relationship to leaders."
Another consequence of not addressing proximity bias in a hybrid workplace is the underutilization of resources, including human resources.
"If you're a manager or a leader and you're showing favoritism towards some employees, you aren't doing your job," Shalfrooshan said. "Your job is to utilize employees to the best of their capabilities. Managers who don't understand this risk becoming obsolete."
Proximity bias can become even more problematic when time zones are added to the equation, said Meaghan Williams, hybrid culture enablement and people operations manager at Hubspot, a technology company based in Cambridge, Mass. "As a manager in the Eastern Time Zone with the majority of my team on the East Coast, I have to be careful about when I offer new opportunities or make major announcements and events so as to not exclude my PST [Pacific Standard Time] team members who may not even be at their desks yet."
The pandemic has exacerbated time-based bias, added Stefanie Heiter, CEO and founder of Bridging Distance, a training and assessment firm in Townsend, Mass. "Those who live in the same time zone often rely more than ever on instant connection tools like instant messaging and video chat that further isolate those on the other side of the globe. Effective leaders need to be aware of the difficulties that time and distance create and take ongoing, proactive steps to mitigate that impact," she said.
Experimenting with Solutions
Experts agree that the best way to combat proximity bias is not to ignore the problem or bring everyone back to the office, but to build guidelines and operating models that address this particular challenge in a systemic way.
"Managers have to be able to invite all the voices into the room to solve new problems in new ways. Otherwise, you run the risk of falling behind," said Jeanne Schad, former global talent solutions practice leader at Randstad RiseSmart, a career transition and outplacement firm based in San Jose, Calif.
"HR can help equip managers with the skills they need to manage hybrid work teams," Schad said. This might include scheduling more frequent, informal check-ins instead of formal annual reviews and having more open, two-way conversations between managers and employees to better understand the challenges they face.
"HR's role is to educate managers and leaders about this bias," Liem agreed. "Awareness is half the battle. When you become aware of it, you can act more intentionally."
Synchrony Financial, a consumer credit company based in Stamford, Conn., has evolved a "remote first" strategy to level the playing field between remote and office employees. Prior to the pandemic, 90 percent of their employees worked in an office. During the pandemic, all but a handful worked from home. As the pandemic waned, the company surveyed employees to find out whether they wanted to return to the office or continue working from home. When the data showed that 85 percent of employees wanted to continue to work remotely full time, everyone was given that option, said CHRO DJ Casto.
Under this policy, every employee, including senior leadership, is required to work from home at least one day per week. The goal is to alleviate any pressures that employees might feel to come into the office.
"What we've told our leaders is that they have a responsibility to have this remote-first mindset and to make sure remote-working employees keep them honest in terms of engagement," Casto said. And although nearly everyone is working remotely, employees must all live within commuting distance of a regional hub or the company headquarters.
"We don't want our workforce dispersed everywhere because we want a sense of identity that there is a community that we can connect with," he said.
As a result of this policy, Casto explained that the company needed to reimagine its workspace to accommodate a new way of working. "We shrunk our real estate because we no longer needed so much office space," he said. "We added a coffee bar to make the space more appealing, and we invested in a hoteling app that allows remote employees to reserve desks, offices or conference rooms for purposeful activities."
The Role of HR
As companies continue to test different hybrid strategies, "HR professionals need to be the 'boots on the ground' in order to understand what challenges employees are facing and how to help people feel connected," said Allie Kovalik, community and culture manager at Globalization Partners in Cambridge, Mass.
However, "this cannot just be an HR strategy," added David Rosenblatt, who has worked remotely for the past 15 years. "The key is to have buy-in from the top and the tools to make it work." He said he has never felt marginalized by his decision to work from home, in large part because of CEO involvement.
"The CEO models engagement in a way that helps drive that piece throughout the organization," Rosenblatt said, adding that technology is also important because it facilitates access.
"Proximity is all about access," Schad added. "Access equals opportunity."
HR professionals also have an important role to play in making sure that everyone is on the same page, Gassner said. This includes reviewing the performance evaluation process, coaching managers to recognize biases and teaching remote leadership skills. "A lot of the training we do is focused on developing a leadership framework that prizes inclusivity," she said.
"The reality of hybrid working arrangements is that we need to adapt how we collaborate and communicate," Liem said. "Unless organizations establish protocols to involve remote team members, this can unintentionally make them feel excluded and rejected."
Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.