With the hybrid workplace becoming the norm in more companies, people managers and HR have to change the way of working to embrace this new work model, including preventing proximity bias.
When an employee comes to the office daily, it might be easier to think of them for a promotion rather than an employee working remotely more often based on the incorrect assumption that in-office employees are more productive.
Read more about this concept and how to prevent it/reduce it in your workplace.
What is proximity bias?
Proximity bias happens when employees who are physically closer to managers are favored at work relative to those who work remotely.
The camaraderie created through personal interactions among employees in the office puts remote employees in a disadvantaged position because of the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon.
What is the impact of proximity bias in a hybrid work environment?
If left unchecked, proximity bias has a significant negative impact on employee morale, and engagement because of unfair and unequal treatment in rewards and performance management.
Remote employees will feel demotivated because they are always left out of important career opportunities. They feel ‘voiceless’ because their feedback is less likely to be heard by the top management.
Worse things can happen if remote workers leave the company because of unfair treatment at work. High employee turnover can result in halted productivity and creativity because finding and replacing lost employees takes time. Declined productivity levels stunt business growth and success.
How to mitigate proximity bias?
The HR team and managers should work together to make necessary changes to business processes to effectively mitigate proximity bias.
Here are some ideas to consider:
Acknowledge that proximity bias exists
If you don’t talk about it, you wouldn’t be able to know when proximity bias occurs.
Addressing this issue and its negative effects should begin with discussions with higher management. Discuss how it may exist in your organization by educating everyone about this bias, so it's easy to spot incidents when it occurs. It also shows the company’s genuine commitment to equality.
To start, keep an objective record of big projects given to individuals. Study if there are trends in people who are given promotions or favorable work conditions and if these individuals spend more time connecting with managers and supervisors.
Establish trust and transparency
Proximity bias happens when supervisors believe that onsite employees work harder than their remote colleagues just because they can physically see in-person staff doing the work. To erode this perception, it is vital to establish a culture of trust and transparency.
Trust begets trust. Build mutual trust among team members by allowing them to choose their own work schedule and location. When you do this, you empower your employees to maximize their productivity while still participating in team activities.
Offering this flexibility means you consider their needs and put the onus on them to do their best at work even if no one is watching.
Monitor remote employees’ productivity by investing in project management tools. Share work schedules where all employees can note their location each day. Set regular meetings to keep track of project status and milestones, deadlines, workflows, and responsibilities.
Frequent discussions also help clarify the project's direction and prevent miscommunications between in-office and remote employees.
Devise a tech strategy to support your remote staff
A successful remote work strategy requires access to software that facilitates effective collaboration and face-to-face communication.
To create a seamless remote work experience, the quality of tools should be comparable to what staff use in the physical workplace. You also need to invest in collaboration tools to make it easy to share ideas and monitor workflows.
Consider the following factors when selecting devices to boost your remote work strategy:
- Features that facilitate a variety of synchronous (phone calls, video conferencing, face-to-face conversations, and live instant messaging) and asynchronous (email, collaboration tools, shared documents, voice, and video messaging) communications needs
- Usage, security, and experience of employees using them
- Additional resources to help enhance employees’ work-from-home setup
- Employee satisfaction of remote workers when collaborating with their office peers
- Availability of tools in locations your business operates
Make all communication remote first
Implementing a remote-first communication policy means all communication and information should be shared in written form (Slack, for example) or all-team meetings.
Asynchronous and digital communication should be the norm, regardless of where the employees are located. Using this approach ensures that all employees are updated with the latest information.
Everyone can share their opinions and experiences, which cover a wide range of perspectives and expertise. And conversations can be archived so everyone can reference them when needed.
Also, consider the strategies in fulfilling your remote communication like:
- Group among team members and one-on-one conversations between manager and direct reports
- Tools to use for asynchronous and synchronous communication during remote work
- Changes to communication strategy depending on the location of the work
- Documentation of communication of general company information
- Communication channel: video, phone call, Skype
- Meeting frequency (e.g., weekly, monthly)
- Meeting agenda (e.g., team building, check-ins)
- Meeting participants (e.g., managers, board members)
Avoiding in-office meetings ensures that everyone is included in the decision-making process. So those people working remotely don’t feel alienated.
Actively check in with all employees
When you adopt a remote first or hybrid work policy, you must have regular one-on-one with all employees. Sometimes, it's inevitable that onsite employees have more opportunities to get direct feedback and recognition from managers, which limits the opportunities for remote staff to improve their work.
To avoid disparities, consider how you connect with your team members. Check-in regularly to closely monitor progress or resolve small issues before they escalate.
Remember the frequency of check-ins for your employees: some people prefer daily (especially when starting) while others prefer weekly or every other week.
Also, vary your check-in method, some employees want a scheduled video call that allows them to discuss multiple topics while others want to send a quick email with questions and updates. Some want a weekly 30-minute in-person meeting. So you have to ask each person about their preferences.
Schedule 1:1s with your remote employees
Since remote workers are less visible than their in-office counterparts, it's crucial to schedule video calls with them.
Set up agenda in Google docs that both the manager and the direct report can access, review and update. Take note of action items from past meetings to track status and progress.
From the book Remote Inc: How to Thrive at Work… Wherever You Are by Robert Pozen and Alexandra Samuel, here are six sample questions managers need to ask in a one-on-one with a remote employee:
Focus on objectives
The first crucial to managing remote workers' performance is establishing objectives. Doing this sets the expectations for the work that needs to be accomplished.
When setting goals, discuss what is essential and realistic. Communicate the intent behind the goals and deliverables. If employees understand the reason for certain tasks, they’ll be in the best position to work and deliver the desired results.
Create OKRs and goals to review the performance of your employees. OKRs are essential for transparency and unbiased decision-making when promoting people. They should be checked weekly or twice a month to monitor progress, discuss any areas of concern and make adjustments accordingly.
And if you can, break up a more extensive project into smaller tasks with shorter deadlines to keep employees focused. This has added benefit of ensuring a project pivot has minimal impact on other team members.
Measure employee performance based on quantifiable output
To limit proximity bias, design a performance appraisal system based on productivity instead of hours spent in the office or online.
Remote staff is often less visible to managers, so data for performance reviews should be collected from many people and sources.
Create a process where people can provide kudos and praise to their colleagues. A 360-degree review allows for a structured system to ensure fair career advancement opportunities.
Doing this puts remote workers on equal footing with their onsite coworkers and enables managers to view the accomplishments of all employees.
From the same Remote Inc book, here are suggested sample questions you can ask during a performance review with your direct report.
Please note that the questions should be based on the employee’s specific situation:
Prioritize giving feedback
Part of effective performance management is giving feedback. Especially when employees are working remotely, it's hard to detect behaviors that are not helping in producing the target outcomes. In those instances, giving feedback and finding a solution to change behavior is critical.
When providing clear and constructive feedback, don't just talk, listen. Don’t interpret a person’s actions until you’ve had the chance to hear what they have to say and explain their perspective.
Remain objective by highlighting specific and concrete behaviors. Give details on what exactly is missing or how it might be fixed. For example, when you say they’ve made a poor sales report, explain that their report lacks the latest sales record for a specific date or location.
Or give them positive feedback if they’ve done a great job with the sales presentation because they’ve featured case studies and client testimonials.
Build an inclusive culture
Company culture is not exclusively tied to a physical office – it’s what you do collectively and how your employees work together.
Build bonds through frequent video calls and team meetings to foster an inclusive culture. Encourage a supportive and respectful workplace environment by listening and acknowledging all opinions and suggestions.
Make sure there’s no favoritism taking place – such as managers having closer associations with team members due to location. Avoid impromptu in-office meetings that remote employees won’t be able to join at a moment's notice.
Prioritize regular communication with remote employees to make them feel included and prevent feelings of social isolation. Offer support when someone is struggling with remote work fatigue.
Reducing proximity bias is another step toward creating an inclusive workplace. By understanding what it means and how it happens, you can implement strategies to avoid it and build a more fair and bias-free workplace.