Proximity bias happens when individuals favor or give preferential treatment to people who are physically closest to them—such as those who come into the office when other colleagues are hybrid or remote.
In-Office or At-Home
Here’s an example from the knowledge industry, where more than two-thirds of employees are in hybrid arrangements. Recent surveys show that the hybrid option is popular with all demographic groups. However, minority workers and females are more likely than white males to actually use the option. And executive-level employees are most likely of all to work in-person.
That’s where the real challenge arises.
Unless executives are aware of and actively mitigating their proximity bias, they may be more likely to reward those who are in the office with them.
Proximity bias is just one of many cognitive biases that can be stumbling blocks for decisions within organizations. While it’s very natural for our brains to take these shortcuts, we need to be aware of them and not fall victim to blind-spot bias, or the failure to recognize our own cognitive biases.
As labor markets continue to evolve, employers who embrace a purpose-driven philosophy and rethink their work processes to focus on outcomes will be better positioned to recognize and effectively address proximity bias.
Follow the Work, Not the Worker
Past business practices drove a false equivalence between hours spent in the office and productivity, a holdover from the early days of the industrial era and time clocks. Nothing is further from the truth, and we’re all seeing that as the focus shifts to what really matters, which is outcomes.
Employers can update their practices to consciously prioritize bottom-line results over where people are located. They can be agile and give employees flexibility with defined expectations. They can focus on the value created rather than tasks that employees do or how often executives see them in the office.
Technology is an excellent tool to avoid proximity bias. We have a wealth of tech tools to assist people in communicating effectively, engaging with each other and automating performance management so teams can function more dynamically.
Leadership sets the tone of the corporate culture. If executives want a hybrid environment to succeed, addressing proximity bias as a concept and confirming that it doesn’t have a place within the organization is a significant first step.
Top management can also schedule monthly or quarterly opportunities for virtual communication with employees to allow them to ask questions via a virtual chat.
Executive management teams that emulate a hybrid work environment assure through their actions that being in the office is not advantageous. If everyone participates in a hybrid work setting except the executives, there is no question that this would instill proximity bias within an organization.
Moving executive management teams into hybrid work also would compel them to use and engage in technology tools to make hybrid work environments seamless. When all people working remotely within an organization can communicate effectively, including executive management, we have started the shift in the culture.
One of the perceived drawbacks to remote work is the anxiety that upward mobility will be awarded to those who have more “face time” with management. Developing a structured mentoring program to discuss career goals takes some of that fear out of the equation.
Through the mentoring program, the mentor can collaborate with the mentee to best meet their desired goals. This may require professional development on the mentee’s part, such as leadership training, product training or customer service training. This ultimately makes the employee more effective and the company more productive, so it is a win for everyone.
Another critical factor is employee engagement. Developing employees and making sure they feel valued, heard and recognized for their contribution to the success of the entire organization takes physical proximity out of the equation.
Empowering employees and involving them in a collaborative process yields better results and gives everyone a sense of ownership. Additionally, implementing an ongoing feedback loop for employees to make suggestions for addressing proximity bias and other cognitive shortcuts will engage them in the process of creating a positive corporate culture.
At our company, we leverage technology as we look at objectives and key results (OKRs). We also encourage employees to tie their job objectives to larger shared goals. And we track it all online in ways that help us measure tangible progress rather than focusing on perceived busyness. This also prevents managers from micromanaging and empowers employees to do their job effectively.
Through effective leadership, a focus on outcomes, employee empowerment, collaboration and the use of technology, we can mitigate proximity bias and honor the contributions of each of our employees, wherever they choose to work.
Otto Berkes has been CEO of HireRoad, a talent management software company, since 2019. Berkes is also well known for being an Xbox co-founder and driving groundbreaking hardware and software innovation at Microsoft for 18 years. After his tenure at Microsoft, he joined HBO, where he built the company’s streaming services, and subsequently joined CA Technologies, where he led the company through a comprehensive digital transformation. Additionally, he is a co-inventor on 13 patents and has received Microsoft’s Xbox Founder’s Award, an Emmy Award, and an Edward R. Murrow Award.
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