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Proximity bias: Why it spells disaster for hybrid teams

September 29, 2022 - 12 min read
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    The hybrid work model became an almost overnight workplace staple during the pandemic — and it looks like it’s here to stay. Even as many companies are pushing to bring employees back to the office, they’re finding that to be easier said than done. The great “work-from-home experiment” has shown that it’s possible to do many roles remotely. This has proven to be great for rethinking the office and widening the available talent pool. Remote work has empowered employee engagement, new opportunities for work/life balance, and a new pathway for employees previously put on the sidelines. 

    On the other hand, not everyone wants to work from home — even though it doesn’t seem everyone wants to be in the office either. So what’s the deal? This paradox points to a truth that business leaders are just beginning to uncover and name. Remote workers pay the cost of convenience and flexibility with a belonging tax. And the impact of it may end up affecting the trajectory of their entire careers. 

    BetterUp’s research found that 93% of hybrid workers are concerned about working from home because of potential isolation and mental health issues. And they have every right to worry. We’re learning that managers and leadership teams are falling for a particular cognitive bias when it comes to performance reviews, opportunities for advancement, and preferential treatment in the workplace. 

    This cognitive bias — known as proximity bias — might subtly be undermining gains made by hybrid teams in both inclusion and work-life balance. Left rampant, it spells disaster for hybrid teams. It’s essential that human resources professionals and managers recognize proximity bias and put systems in place to curtail it. 

    What is proximity bias?

    Proximity bias is one of many cognitive biases — that is, neurological shortcuts our brains use to make decision-making more efficient. Like many other cognitive biases, its negative impact can be hard to see if we’re not aware that the bias exists in the first place.

    From a survival perspective, we prefer people we already know because we see them as safe. However, in an office space, that means we tend to favor those in our immediate vicinity — regardless of performance. In-office workers will subconsciously prefer those they see every day, team members in a certain region will favor local colleagues, and even departments will show an affinity for others in the same department (if they communicate often enough).

    Proximity bias occurs when you favor the workers who are in close physical proximity to you over those who work off-site.

     Erin Eatough, PhD, Sr. Insights Manager at BetterUp

    Proximity bias shares quite a bit of overlap with another common bias known as the availability heuristic. This describes our brain’s tendency to make decisions based on readily available information. When managers — unaware of the effects of the proximity bias — need to consider who will take on projects or earn a promotion, the availability heuristic supplies the names of the individuals they see the most often. This creates several potential impacts for leaders, teams, on-site employees, and their remote counterparts.

    social-heuristics-proximity-bias

    What is the impact of proximity bias in a hybrid work environment?

    If proximity bias rears its head in person, the effects are exaggerated in a hybrid work environment. Even fully-remote teams are subject to the challenges of availability, time zones, and getting enough “face time.” In virtual offices, team members that you don’t interact with regularly enough may slip out of awareness entirely. At that point, another cognitive bias comes into play: fundamental attribution error. We assume that when others are absent or out of sight, they’re less committed to the team’s success.

    One of the primary benefits of hybrid work culture is that it gives all employees a chance to determine how they do their best work. A traditional, nine-to-five work environment has historically favored one type of professional. The need to commute to an office impacts many aspects of people’s lives. This includes what time they wake up, when they go to sleep, where their children go to school, what they wear, and even what kind of meals they eat. 

    For much of the last hundred years, we haven’t questioned these choices. Work largely got done in an office, and that was that. Some populations, though, found the balancing act impossible. As a result, many qualified minorities, women, caregivers, and people with disabilities sat on the sidelines, a marginalized faction of the labor force.

    Those same demographics have benefited from the shift to hybrid work — and so have their companies. We now find ourselves in a competitive and challenging job market, where organizations consistently rank “finding and retaining talent” as a top concern. These professionals from diverse backgrounds are needed and wanted in the workforce. But they’re also most likely to seek flexible work arrangements. If leaders aren’t aware of the impact of proximity bias, their career growth will be stunted by (yet another) unseen barrier.

    parent-working-remotely-with-kid-proximity-bias

    This new culture of remote and hybrid work is putting inclusive leadership skills to the test. The intersectionality of diversity and the need for flexibility means that inclusion is the “secret weapon” that makes a hybrid work culture thrive. BetterUp looked at teams from hybrid workplaces with both low and high belonging scores. Overwhelmingly, teams with the highest levels of belonging had leaders that demonstrated core inclusive leadership skills.

    To address proximity bias, business leaders need to make DEI a core part of their leadership development strategy. There isn’t a way to separate the two. Encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work means creating an equal playing field for all employees — no matter where they get their work done.

    How do you mitigate proximity bias?

    Proximity bias is a natural cognitive function — and at its root, it’s not a bad thing. We tend to prefer individuals and situations that are familiar to us because we want to build connections. It’s a human tendency, and one that doesn’t make sense to discourage — especially not in the workplace. 

    Instead, leaders need to provide more opportunities for both remote and in-person employees to connect at their organizations. Being intentional about communication, as well as creating a formalized promotion policy, is critical. These initiatives can help remote team members be just as visible as their on-site counterparts.

    Here are 5 strategies that help mitigate proximity bias:

    1. Remote-first communication

    One important shift for hybrid teams is to move away from relying on face-to-face and real-time meetings. While teams do benefit from synchronous collaboration, this should be the exception, not the norm. 

    Whenever possible, rely on asynchronous communication, like Slack or Loom, to send messages back and forth between teams. Not only does this support a healthy hybrid work culture, it’s much more effective for a variety of work styles. People who time-block their tasks and neurodivergent employees will appreciate the shift.

    hybrid-meeting-with-employees-proximity-bias

    2. One-on-one meetings

    Whether in person or remote, every employee should have regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with their manager. This dedicated time is an important way to increase “face time” with leadership. Encourage your employees to take the reins on these meetings. They can discuss current projects, new ideas, well-being, or opportunities for career development.

    3. Create metrics for success

    Does your organization have a defined process for performance reviews? Do employees know how to get promoted? If your team hasn’t defined these processes, then the door is open for inconsistency, frustration, and bias.

    Instead of leaving it up to chance, create clear guidelines for each role. Define responsibilities, expectations, and next steps for career growth. Having a defined path for growth makes it easier to evaluate both in-office and remote employees. And your team will appreciate knowing what they need to do to be rewarded for their hard work.

    4. Create opportunities for connection

    If your team works across countries or time zones, it’s worth creating time to work together in person. This kind of collaboration can help put everyone on equal footing, and yield results that might take longer asynchronously. 

    Consider repurposing some of the money saved on office expenses. You could host an offsite or company retreat at regular intervals (say, quarterly or annually). This time can be used for both focused work and social interaction. Between meetings, offer remote workers a stipend or membership for a coworking space. In larger organizations, this often results in “hubs” of local employees getting together on a regular basis.

    social-connection-proximity-bias

    5. Develop a coaching leadership style

    A coaching leadership style is one where leaders offer personalized support to their employees. It can require a large commitment of both time and energy. However, this isn’t a bad thing, since many employees are hungry for these kinds of career conversations and feedback. Transactional leadership techniques tend to be especially prone to proximity bias. 

    You can develop this style by working closely with direct reports. Take the time to understand what they want out of their roles and their careers. In one-to-one conversations, give as much time to evaluation and feedback as you do to task management. 

    Lastly, building an employee coaching culture doesn’t have to be done alone. Providing hands-on, one-to-one coaching with BetterUp has been shown to improve employee retention, job satisfaction, and employee engagement. Coaching is a great way to support both productivity and individual development. The best part? It doesn’t require any additional time on your managers’ part — unless, of course, they want to participate in coaching as well.

    Final thoughts

    A hybrid workplace represents a new way of looking at work — and there are many benefits to this. But it doesn’t work if we don’t stay curious and critical about how we can improve. While it’s never exactly been easy to be a people manager, leading and managing others requires a brand new set of skills in hybrid workforce. With focused attention and an open mind, we can shape the world of work for the better — no matter where we find ourselves.

    connection-crisis-download-the-report

    Published September 29, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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