Amidst the pandemic, most employees had to deal with remote-work challenges such as virtual meetings, communicating online, scheduling time with managers and balancing personal life. While a segment of the workforce is thrilled and excited about the hybrid work model, remote working becoming a mainstream for many brings in a new challenge by blurring the level playing field.
With COVID cases dwindling, organisations have started implementing hybrid work. While a segment of the workforce is keen to embrace the change, hybrid working poses some issues for those at home. With different schedules, locations, and technologies at play, it will be more challenging for remote employees to be seen or heard, vs their peers, who are returning to the workplace.
With the emergence of a hybrid working system, a significant concern to watch out for would be the Proximity Bias. Working remotely, employees miss out on spontaneous moments of connection and are likely to feel further isolated from their peers, unable to effectively collaborate. The lack of an informal connection with colleagues is also likely to contribute to weakening workplace relationships, thereby fueling greater challenges to tackle in employee retention.
Hybrid model is more complex than either a pure onsite or remote model. It increases the complexity of platforms for interactions and management. In the last two years, I came across and sensed insecurity among employees who chose to work remotely over coming to the office. Their peers had easy access to the leadership and managers. So, how can leaders tackle proximity bias and workforce insecurity amid the increasing adoption of a hybrid model? Let’s find out.
What is Proximity Bias?
Proximity bias is the idea that preferential treatment is given to those who spend the most time physically close to us. Proximity bias can turn foul in the workplace when a business or team leader(s) believe that on-site employees work harder and are more productive than remote employees. This is simply because they can physically see in-person employees doing the work and assume that remote employees are not putting in their best, causing them to overlook the significant contribution from remote workers.
Proximity bias is an instinct that leads to accidental favouritism, unconscious bias and prioritisation that feels safest, thus bestowing preferential treatment to those physically close to us, and fueling anxiety and insecurity in those out of sight.
To ensure fair treatment to all employees by creating a level playing field for rewarding and advancing career growth, organisations can foster inclusivity and combat proximity bias irrespective of where they work. Leadership needs to factor this into their people practices.
Choosing to ignore such prevalent workspace biases may reduce employee engagement, stickiness with the organisation, higher attrition and reduced association with the organisation resulting in reduced collaboration and increased attrition.
It is thus crucial for organisations to develop a proactive approach in orchestrating a hybrid work strategy that combats proximity bias by increasing awareness of any biases they may bring to the table. Irrespective of where an employee chooses to work, they should be endowed with the same opportunities and advancements.
Combatting Proximity Bias
As employers, it is imperative to acknowledge and become aware of some of the proximity biases that can creep in while we have teams working in different working models. As managers, being more mindful of this setup, being aware of the biases they may hold for in-person and remote working and ensuring equitable opportunities for team members irrespective of the work location can help in early tackling of proximity biases.
There are a few things to consider while navigating through the hybrid work model and advancing equity against proximity bias.
- Prioritising the feeling of inclusivity by delegating equal benefits to all kinds of employees – those that choose to work on-site, remotely or in a hybrid manner.
- Employee presence: Ensuring equal presence for all activities, meets or any organisational gatherings
- It is equally important to encourage employees to come on video calls by educating them on the benefits of having Video interactions over audio meetings to promote inclusion.
- Defining clear goals and outcomes that would define clear career pathways and feedback, balanced by objective data by creating assessment methods less vulnerable to bias, would help tackle proximity biases by providing a level playing field irrespective of the work location.
- Equal screen space: Employees working remotely must also contribute as if sitting side-by-side with their on-site counterparts. Leveraging video-conferencing features like hand-raise icons, chat, and polling can allow remote employees to add value to the conversation without speaking over someone else or disrupting the meeting flow. This is especially important considering more those employees who want to remain remote after the pandemic consider themselves reticent and feel unheard.
- By leveraging technologies like digital whiteboarding capabilities, on-site and remote employees can collaborate in real-time. As on-site employees write notes on the whiteboard, remote employees will see them appear on their screens (and vice versa). This allows teams to virtually mimic the brainstorming sessions they used to hold in-person.
- A dedicated channel and forum for casual brainstorming, “water cooler” chats, team-building exercises, and other ad-hoc conversations that remote employees might typically miss out must be implemented. Also, creating opportunities for employees to meet occasionally with their teams to collaborate is imperative
- Think outside the physical building for company events: Holiday parties, happy hours, team-building outings, new employee onboarding. Traditionally, these events were hosted in person and remote employees were excluded or provided a sub-par experience. Moving forward, these events must adapt to deliver a hybrid-first experience.
- Increasing face-time connections through Offsites, philanthropy days, town halls and full-company social events to rebuild team ties and strengthen cultural relationships.
- Splitting the difference with a hybrid option, allowing employees to come into the office several days per week for the foreseeable future.
- Managers must consider how they recreate the on-site experience for remote employees and encourage participation. Using breakout sessions during a virtual team building event, for example, can make it easier for remote employees to participate due to the smaller group size.
- Virtual office tours allow employees to experience a 360-degree view of offices while reinforcing company culture. Additionally, emerging metaverse-style platforms combine the virtual and physical components of the office to mimic real life.
It is pivotal to understand employees' perception of proximity bias intercepting their professional growth and causing a negative impact. If your remote employees are apprehensive about being held back at work due to proximity bias, it would be in the organisations’ best interest to quickly address the issue in a company-wide statement or through the use of educational materials. With employees making lifestyle adjustments, a frequent pulse check with employees to understand if things are moving in the right directions at regular intervals will help proactively understand the employee’s concerns.
Conscious inclusion is the way forward
In a successful hybrid work model, employees shouldn’t have to choose between remote work or career progression. Organisations and leaders must think about DE&I in the broadest sense by integrating the work from office and remote working ecosystem in a manner that provides equal development and advancement opportunities for all employees. Both are possible if the right tools and processes are in place to prevent proximity bias and ensure inclusion.
But, achieving this overall vision and culture of inclusivity can be challenging. It requires a holistic digital workspace strategy and a deep understanding of remote and on-site employees’ needs.
Embracing a consciously diverse, inclusive and equitable working system is the key to long-term progression.