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18.10.2022 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

The dark side of hybrid work: How proximity bias can lead to favouritism

The dark side of hybrid work: How proximity bias can lead to favouritism

Remote workers may be left behind in the hybrid office, as (unconscious) proximity bias can lead to both favouritism and exclusion within a team. Find out why this happens and how you can still foster a thriving, inclusive, and fair team for all, even when working in a hybrid setting.

The hybrid work model—a mix of in-office and remote working—is often hailed as the ideal solution for employers and employees alike. But as more employers adopt (versions of) this model in their business, certain issues have also started to show.

One such problem is the (unconscious) favouritism of employers towards office workers as opposed to remote (first) workers. This can partly be attributed to the psychological concept of proximity bias.

Find out below what’s happening, why it might harm your business, and how you can solve it.

What causes favouritism in the hybrid model?

Unfortunately, favouritism in the workplace isn’t anything new. Employers and managers have always favoured certain employees over others on the basis of points other than just performance or merit. In most cases, favouritism is a by-product of inequitable and unfair treatment of employees, preferring some over others.

A common example is a family member of someone in a management position being hired just because of their familiar relationship with the manager (referred to as nepotism).

In other cases, the reasons can be discriminatory or based on (unconscious) bias. For example, suppose the manager is a white male alumnus of a certain university. In that case, they might give preferential treatment to white male alumni of the same university (the idea of the “old boys club”).

First and foremost, such instances of favouritism are unethical, unjust, and detrimental to your company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. But it can even be illegal and seriously harm your company (and how your other employees perceive you). Now, in our post-pandemic working environment, where remote work and hybrid work are increasingly on the rise, a new form of favouritism is threatening the workforce.

Proximity bias and the hybrid work model

The concept of proximity bias isn’t anything new. But the hybrid work model seems to reinforce this bias in employers and managers alike.

“Proximity bias, also called distance bias, is the psychological concept of instinctively favouring people closer to us in (physical) proximity. In the workplace, proximity bias can lead to the favouritism of some and the exclusion or negligence of others.”

For the full definition and explanation, check out our Glossary article: What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias in the context of hybrid work is all about how visible employees (and their work) are in the eyes of management. The more often an employee works from home, the less visible this employee may become. Employees who are always in the office, on the other hand, tend to enjoy much more visibility from management.

The result is that managers (often incorrectly so) believe that the office-first employee puts in more hours, performs better, or has a higher commitment to the company. And this is problematic.

An employee working remotely for four days per week might actually perform much better and contribute significantly more to the company’s well-being than an employee who’s always in the office. Just because someone works from the office five days per week, this doesn’t always mean they contribute more to your business (or are more closely involved in the company culture, for that matter).

The result? Favouritism of some and exclusion of others, both not based on the actual merit or performance of your employees. And this is not only unfair, but can harm your organisation.

The dangers of proximity bias and favouritism to your business

Part of the proximity bias is understandable. If you’re the manager of a team, you might feel that someone who is constantly present shows more heart for the business. They seem more committed to your team, your company, and to contributing to your culture.

And this might sometimes be the case. But just because someone is always physically present, doesn’t equate to them performing better than others. And blindly assuming they do can harm your business.

Consider these pitfalls of misinterpreting physical presenteeism over performance:

  • You base your judgment of someone’s performance on proximity rather than actual performance, leading to discriminatory and unjust treatment.
  • As employees from certain demographical and economic backgrounds are more likely to prefer working from home, your favouritism might result in the exclusion of certain minority groups. Be mindful of these differences, such as the fact that employees with disabilities are 11% more likely to prefer hybrid work.
  • This favouritism may also lead to a remote-work promotion gap that can result in promoting physically close employees rather than the most qualified and talented employees.
  • This way, you alienate certain team members, driving them to disengagement and a disgruntled attitude towards you and your business.
  • Once remote-first employees pick up on their unfair treatment, they might not feel the motivation or drive to put in the same effort.
  • Employees who might have been happy to put in over hours and work on weekends to get projects over the line might now decide to join the quiet quitting movement instead.
  • This leads to decreased productivity of otherwise motivated employees, dragging down your team’s results.
  • It can also negatively impact your employer branding and the way employees perceive you and your company.
  • Ultimately, you risk disrupting an otherwise high-functioning team solely based on unconscious and unfounded biases, negatively impacting your revenue and performance in its wake.

So let’s have a look at how you can prevent proximity bias from influencing your organisation.

How to prevent favouritism from negatively affecting your hybrid workplace (in 9 steps)

Ensuring this bias doesn’t seep into your organisation can help you prevent a negative impact on your team’s performance. Here are 9 steps to take into consideration to prevent this from happening to your team.

1. Be mindful of a person’s choice to work remotely

First and foremost, take a moment to consider why an employee might prefer to work remotely rather than from the office. For example, working mothers might prefer working from home to save on childcare costs and spend more time with their children.

An autistic employee might like working in your office sporadically, but they might sometimes need the peace and quiet of their home environment to be at their most productive. In general, although your in-office culture might seem fun and interactive to you, for some it can be a source of distraction. Working from home might actually mean they’re more focused and productive.

2. Encourage participation from everyone in the team

It’s important that every employee feels empowered to speak up, but also that they feel encouraged to participate fully in the decision-making process.

Focus on building a strong feedback culture where employees aren’t afraid to speak their minds. And invest in improving remote collaborations within your team, so everyone is encouraged to participate.

3. Build a solid remote workflow for everyone to collaborate equally and effectively

Facilitating great remote collaborations also means ensuring all the necessary tools, equipment, and processes are in place. This allows everyone to communicate effectively and collaborate equally, regardless of where they are located.

Effective communication is more key than ever in hybrid and remote working environments.

4. Carefully consider promotions or allocating meaningful projects (and consult with others)

Don’t fall into the trap of just offering big projects (and job promotions) to the people most visible and closest to you. Just because someone isn’t in the office doesn’t mean they can’t lead a cross-departmental project with a variety of stakeholders.

As long as everything is in place as mentioned in the previous point, everyone should be able (and feel empowered) to lead projects. If not, the question arises whether you as a business are doing your part to facilitate such an environment for everyone to thrive equally.

When considering whether someone in the team deserves a promotion, try to look at performance metrics rather than “gut feeling”. Consider who actually has the best skill set to perform the job, and give the job to that person, regardless of where they prefer to work.

5. Appreciate output rather than presence

Try not to get bogged down with the traditional concept of employees having to be present at certain times to do the job. Flexible hours go hand in hand with hybrid work, and some of your employees might simply be more productive during hours outside of “traditional” 9-to-5 office hours.

So instead of focussing on whether they’re present during your standard hours, focus on the work they deliver and their output. Acknowledge skills and what’s delivered, rather than just looking at their physical presence.

If your remote-first employee consistently reaches their deadlines and always delivers excellent work, why not consider them for a well-deserved promotion?

6. Openly give praise to accomplishments of remote-first employees

You might sometimes go up to an employee’s desk and congratulate them on the great work they did, or tell them over lunch how you appreciate how they handled that tough client. Such moments of giving positive feedback often come sporadically and unplanned, but they are incredibly important for employees to feel valued and appreciated.

Unfortunately, when someone works remotely, it’s easier to forget to acknowledge and applaud their efforts. That’s why in the hybrid work environment, you might have to pay extra attention to also openly giving praise to the accomplishments of remote-first employees.

This not only helps them feel valued, but also sends a signal to the entire team that remote workers are seen and appreciated.

7. Lead by example

Although you might be a real in-office worker yourself, it can still be good to—as a manager—sometimes work from home yourself to show your team it’s accepted.

By leading by example, you encourage others to work from home sometimes if they want, and you show that it’s accepted and not judged.

8. Invest in team building

If (part of) your team work remote, building a strong company culture can be a bit more challenging. But ensuring a strong bond between your team members can really help your team thrive.

To help with this, invest time in organising regular team events and focus on team-building efforts to help raise morale and strengthen bonds within your team.

9. Foster a psychologically safe working environment

Lastly, it’s all about always maintaining open communication and feedback within your team. Listen to your employees to find out the reasons behind working from home, but also to learn their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

Curious to find out how to build such an environment in your organisation? Then check out our article on psychological safety in the workplace!

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