Workplaces that once revolved around a single, centralized physical space have since pivoted to working virtually, with employees reporting in from their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. Now, leadership teams around the world are adjusting to a future of either fully remote work, or a hybrid work approach.
Unfortunately, one unanticipated side effect that comes when juggling multiple work modes is proximity bias. This is a phenomenon where leadership teams begin to subconsciously favor in-office workers over remote workers.
While not a new concept, proximity bias has an impact on companies like employee retention rates, limiting companies ability to attract top talent around the globe, lowering work satisfaction, and deepening inequalities when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
In this article, we’ll gather insights from Vimeo’s people operations team to learn what proximity bias is, how to identify and confront inequities, and steps to foster a more inclusive work environment with video.
In this article
What is proximity bias
Proximity bias is the subconscious tendency to favor or overvalue, in-office employees over those who work remotely.
As more offices execute their return-to-office strategies, proximity bias can present itself in subtle and obvious ways. It can be in the form of people managers evaluating onsite employees higher than their remote counterparts, calling them to perform special tasks or lead projects, or holding meetings that focus on employees who are physically present over those logging in virtually.
Proximity bias is a growing problem among companies adopting a hybrid work model, particularly as the job market heats up and employee retention and employee engagement become urgent priorities.
It also presents an imbalance among team members, and one which, left unchecked, can compound existing disparities in diverse workforces.
One challenge is that proximity bias develops unconsciously. Research suggests that an employee simply being seen in the office led to the perception that they were more committed and dependable. This perception can lend itself easily to in-office workers receiving preferential treatment over their remote counterparts. However, research suggests knowledge workers and other employees are more productive after pivoting to remote modes of work.
“If remote team members are not considered as a population, experience may be worse and remote team members may feel like they are excluded,” says Alissa Conway, Vimeo’s VP of Employee Experience. “If we do not consider different work modes and what works for them, decreased team member experience can lead to attrition.”
While many companies have abandoned their buildings in favor of fully remote teams, that’s not always an option. Some roles are simply better suited for the office, too.
Plus, many people do prefer the social interaction and work-life balance of an office environment. Moreover, when it comes to companies balancing different time zones, proximity bias can rear its ugly head even in remote workforces when managers schedule special offers and promotions, or meetings and events to suit local time zones.
Confronting potential inequity at work
Despite the early challenges of companies transitioning to a fully remote model during the pandemic, the work-from-home model revealed advantages. For many people, including those who may have differing abilities or don’t necessarily fit comfortably in an office environment, working remotely removed a set of lifestyle constraints that prevented them from delivering their best results at work.
“I’m thinking about someone who might be under the spectrum, or someone like myself — a single mom of three daughters. Or say you don’t have children, but you may have an issue that may lend itself to you needing to be in a space alone, or you work better one-on-one,” says Candace Williams, Director of DEI (Equity and DEI) at Vimeo. “There are so many things that can be seen, or not seen. Or people don’t want to tell you because they don’t feel psychologically safe to do so for whatever reason because of their lived experiences.”
In these cases, a sweeping return to office plan makes it challenging for employees who fear being perceived differently by management.
That’s why Williams strongly encourages inclusive policies and practices that embrace team members where they are.
Intersections that can play into a person’s desire and ability to return to an in-office work mode can include family life, different learning abilities, or unique lived experiences in the workplace that might be difficult to explain.
“When I look at bias, I pack all those layers into it,” says Williams.
If managers adopt the perception that in-office workers work harder, it can be difficult for remote workers to advance in their career. An unequal hybrid work model could leave remote workers short-changed and overlooked when it comes to crucial things like highly visible projects and professional development opportunities.
There are some simple one-to-one conversions when it comes to addressing remote/onsite inequality. For example, if a company wants to make life a bit easier for employees to return to the office by providing onsite child care, they should also consider a childcare stipend for remote workers.
But other challenges may not be so simple. Organizational leaders will need to reach out to remote employees and open a conversation about what they need to succeed in their work.
Without psychological safety and a nuanced approach to engage employees, proximity bias may exacerbate existing inequities felt between different groups, leading to diminished work performance and poor employee retention.
6 tips to help mitigate proximity bias at work
Here are just a few ideas from Candace Williams and Alissa Conway that companies can incorporate in their practices to support team members, whether they’re in the office or at home, to yield the best results.
1. Create social channels that allow people to feel safe
Even though some employees may choose to continue working from home, there are still opportunities to engage them socially without forcing them out of their comfort zones. A simple way of doing that is creating Slack channels that can help people connect with each other through hobbies and intersectionalities.
For example, Vimeo has channels for cooking groups, different employee resource groups, people with hearing impairments, and more. By encouraging employees to connect with team members who look like them or feel like them, it creates a stronger level of engagement.
2. Survey employees on what could improve their work lives
“When it comes to diversity and hybrid models, a lot of companies lean into writing a prescription for what they think that people want from their diversity versus asking what people want,” says Williams.
Instead, companies could more efficiently target improvement by surveying their teams on what helps employees do their best work. They could find that the solution is as easy as improving the lighting in their offices, or as universally beneficial as including a childcare stipend in their offer packages. Or it could simple – like setting a norm with cameras off during conference calls and being okay with meetings that include children or pets in the background.
3. Embrace asynchronous communication
With the sheer number of video and internal communication tools, companies have no excuse for leaving anybody out of the conversation. Try documenting meeting notes and keeping them in a centralized folder for team transparency. Or using screen recordings to help explain tasks — whether it’s locating specific files or providing quick feedback —and throwing them into a centralized video library.
Leaving a trail of notes, videos, and resources that people can refer back to benefits everyone. Not just remote workers, but also in-office employees who learn better through repetition, people in different time zones, those returning from time off, and employees peeking in from different teams who need to get caught up quickly.
4. Ensure leadership have remote days, too
Because leadership is the dominant factor of whether proximity bias occurs in teams, they not only need to be aware of the bias but also need to proactively take steps to even the playing field.
Encouraging managers to go remote is a simple, powerful way to make sure remote workers are seen, heard, and treated equally. Having designated remote days or a remote and in-person office schedule for leadership forces communications and workflow processes out of the physical silo of an office and back online.
“It is important for companies to understand the benefits and challenges of each work mode in order to ensure equity for each,” says Alissa Conway.
5. Focus on results, not optics
In order to reverse the unconscious prejudices that lead to proximity bias, leadership and management should focus on the results and goals, rather than measuring success by hours of butts in chairs.
“When companies pivot their attention to results,” says Williams, “they’ll be more persuaded to provide options for their employees that support those results. For example, rather than assuming that everyone needs to be in-person to attend a meeting, focus on what the result of that meeting should be and offering options to make that goal a reality.”
6. Get personal
“Manager effectiveness has always been the most important factor in team member engagement, and it is even more so now in a remote environment,” says Conway. “It is even more so now in a remote environment, as everyone needs to be more intentional about reaching out and connecting with each other to ensure effective communication.”
In our current work landscape, there are many ways to provide virtual employee engagement opportunities.
Conway recommends managers and leaders make an added effort to reach out to remote employees. This could include ensuring that each member of the team gets regular 1:1 meetings, leaving space in meetings for remote workers to speak up, and reaching out to individual employees to get to know them on a personal level.