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How to combat proximity bias in a hybrid work environment

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May 10, 2022

This story originally appeared on Firmspace and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

How to combat proximity bias in a hybrid work environment

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hybrid work environments have grown in popularity and seem to be here to stay. As of January 2022, 58% of employees work in hybrid models, according to a Future Forum survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers. Of those surveyed, 95% say they desire the type of work schedule flexibility that a hybrid model can offer.

Overall, hybrid work seems to be viewed positively by workers. In a survey conducted by Gallup, employees expressed that they preferred hybrid work models due to less impactful commute times, personal well-being, and flexibility. However, as much as this may be the preferred new normal, there is a naturally occurring challenge that employees face: proximity bias.

According to the BBC, proximity bias can be described as the “unconscious … tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our general vicinity.” It can manifest in several ways, among them favoring the work of on-site employees over remote employees, giving projects or assignments that offer opportunities for advancement more often to on-site workers, and discouraging remote workers from participating in important meetings. Proximity bias is evident in the workspace when employees that work away from the office are treated differently than those in person. Potential inequality between remote and in-office employees is, in fact, a top concern of executives.

As a negative result, proximity bias is known to lead to employee exclusion in the workplace. As this is a significant concern and challenge for any hybrid work environment, Firmspace compiled a list of five tips to help workplaces combat proximity bias using research from a variety of sources, including Gallup, Owl Labs, and more.

Prioritize video meetings

It is a misconception to believe that remote workers don’t do as much as in-office workers. After all, more than half of workers say they are working more hours remotely than at a physical office. To ensure all workers feel included in the workplace, it’s important to make sure leaders are receiving input from both sides and making remote employees feel included in meetings.

To mitigate proximity bias within work meetings, video calls need to be integrated with in-person meetings so that remote employees can fully contribute and engage with meeting attendees. Allowing virtual attendees to contribute first can start off the meeting on a better note and reduce the likelihood of anyone being left out of the conversation. It’s crucial to the success of a team when all attendees get to provide valuable input.

Reimagine the office

For a majority of businesses, hybrid work environments are here to stay—and employees don’t seem to mind at all. A 2022 survey conducted by Gallup states that nearly six out of every 10 workers prefer a hybrid model over exclusively remote or fully on-site.

The impact a hybrid work environment has on office culture all depends on the experiences created and those that managers adapt to. In order for employers to adapt to hybrid teams effectively, workplaces must redefine their environment to fit the current structure. Empowering employees to manage projects, introducing life-balance aspects such as virtual luncheons or meditation sessions, and encouraging offline feedback and dialogue are all ways a hybrid workspace can become more inclusive.

Promote an inclusive culture

Hybrid work models may have a disproportionate impact on gender and racial barriers in the workplace. This could lead to both negative and positive effects on employees, depending on each individual. It’s important that managers be mindful to promote an inclusive culture that fosters the growth of every team member.

Based on a 2020 survey by Qualtrics, 57% of men said working from home has been positive for their career, while less than a third of women said the same. Moreover, while more than half of surveyed men indicated that their workplace instituted diversity and leadership programs, only 18% of women surveyed said the same.

The danger of productivity disparity also exists in a racial divide. While 55% of white workers indicated higher productivity during the pandemic, only 34% of Black workers felt the same. A 2020 survey conducted by Project Include indicated that tech workers have experienced more harassment while working remotely based on gender, age, race, and ethnicity.

Involve remote workers in workplace decisions

Failure to involve remote workers in workplace decisions could lead to suboptimal business choices because it limits the diversity of perspectives and overall knowledge base. A common example of proximity bias within the workspace is when management favors the work of on-site employees over remote employees, despite what performance metrics might say. But a 2016 Gallup poll indicated that an engaged team is both more profitable and more productive. It also found that a management team that does not actively engage its workforce is a direct contributor to disengagement, poor productivity, and increased turnover.

According to a May 2020 McKinsey & Company analysis on why inclusion matters within the workplace, greater diversity can improve company profitability. Additionally, an October 2020 Gallup survey showed that employee engagement made a marked improvement since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and companies are seeing 23% higher profitability as a result.

Implement remote-focused policies

Choosing to implement remote-focused policies could help limit the pressure workers may feel toward coming into the office. To prevent proximity bias in a hybrid workplace, policies may include requiring all workers to work from home at least once or twice a week. After all, the happier employees are, the better the outcome for a company. A 2019 study on happiness and productivity by Oxford University showed that happy workers are more productive—which may seem obvious, but can be difficult to quantify in a workforce that is not always physical together. But by factoring in remote-focused policies, companies can control for proximity bias in a hybrid work environment and foster a positive atmosphere for all.

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