In this blog, we share four tips for leaders to overcome a new challenge for remote and hybrid leaders and workers – proximity bias.
The recent pandemic permanently changed the way we work. Most organizations have morphed into a hybrid workforce – many associates choosing to work remote.
New challenges arise for leaders as they manage teams both onsite and remote. Proximity bias is a new challenge many leaders now face, and it has the potential to negatively impact workplace culture.
What is Proximity Bias?
Proximity bias occurs when a leader shows unconscious favoritism toward associates based on physical proximity. For example, managers may promote in-office associates more frequently than their remote counterparts. While you should base promotions on performance, capability and skill, seeing someone face-to-face daily can create an advantage for your in-office workers. If you’re not careful, proximity bias can result in serious consequences for your company. For example, you may be passing over the best person for a new role simply because you don’t interact with them on a regular basis (in favor of someone you see every day). It’s a form of discrimination and becoming a critical issue faced by companies.
Four Tips to Overcome Proximity Bias
As a leader, how do you avoid showing favoritism to your in-office employees? Here are four tips to counteract this type of biased thinking.
1. Be Aware
This step sounds simple, but don’t overlook it. Awareness is critical because leaders don’t consciously choose to have proximity bias. However, psychologically, our brains tend to favor someone we see and interact with every day over someone we only connect with periodically online. We already know that conscious and unconscious bias exists. According to Ed Calder, Leadership and Management Consultant specializing in workplace change, “We develop mental shortcuts to perform everyday activities, and cognitive biases are the result.”
Compare the relationships you have with team members or associates you only see on the screen to those you see physically. Proximity bias is the result of our brain’s natural reactions. Awareness is key.
Before you decide on who to promote in your team (or give a new assignment or new role), make certain you consider any bias you may feel simply because of proximity.
2. Have a Plan
Proximity bias can hinder an associate’s sense of belonging. Without feeling like part of your team, an associate could lose the motivation to do their best work. When associates don’t produce their best work, the whole organization suffers.
Have a plan to provide equal access to you and your remote associates. Look at how often you connect with in-person associates and try to create equal opportunities to connect with remote associates. Create a list of associates you are most and least connected with, then plan out ways to maximize your time with those you connect with the least.
3. Seek Feedback
You need to understand everyone’s perception of your time with them. Some people assume time with the boss means a focus on work. Your associates need to know that some personal one-on-one conversations are part of the norm, so you get to know them better. You may get some insights through an annual associate engagement survey, but don’t wait for those results. Look for formal and informal ways to gain understanding. Quarterly pulse surveys may help but take advantage of your one-on-one meeting time. Ask probing questions about your remote associates’ connectivity to you, the team and the organization.
4. Maximize your Virtual Time
The main reason proximity bias exists is because we logically become more familiar with those associates we interact with every day. We observe their body language, interactions and behaviors in real time.
Remote workers lose much of that interaction. Maximize your virtual interactions. Take time to meet for 15 minutes to catch up about the weekend. Take the time to get to know your associates personally, who they are, what interests they have, and so on. Associates who feel like they matter and can bring their whole selves to work will be more engaged and productive.
Remote work is here to stay. But the benefits of remote work come with a cost. Being aware of your own bias can save you and your company valuable lost resources as associates go in search of a place – and a leader – they can engage with and build a career.
Take the time to create a plan to engage with your team and associates individually. It won’t be perfect, but the sooner you address any proximity bias in your leadership style, the better your associates, team and company will perform and thrive in a hybrid work environment.