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How to alleviate proximity bias

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In today’s hybrid working world, organisations can offer a more flexible way of working where they can get the job done regardless of being at work or home. However, the flexibility of new arrangements can create complications when we consider proximity bias. So how do you remedy this to promote fairness and equal opportunities among your team?

In the working world, there are a number of biases which culture hubs work towards remedying, but given the pandemic, companies are now dealing with the development of proximity bias. We say development, as it’s actually not a new thing — remote workers have been battling this for a while, but it’s only now hybrid working has hit the masses are people starting to take note. Working remotely "may severely affect an employee's earning potential, their chances of promotion, and their likelihood of receiving a bonus," according to UK government data on home-based work during the last decade. In addition, according to a survey of US employees conducted in April 2021, 52% think that working remotely will limit their opportunities for promotion.

What is new, however, is the number of employees who are now confronted with this new reality since the start of the pandemic in 2020, and the risks it poses to organisations in terms of lower leadership diversity, unwelcome attrition, poor performance, and even legal action.

While it's common to believe that the success of hybrid and remote workplaces is in the hands of MDs or HR, the truth is that it's in the hands of both leaders and employees in many ways.

So, what effect does it have on culture when large groups of people are no longer all working under one roof? How do we deal with resentment of team members who would like to but are unable to work elsewhere due to their roles? What will the future workplace look like? And importantly, how can you ensure communication remains clear and consistent across the team — regardless of their location?

Remove personal prejudice

One of the problems with proximity bias is when leaders make their own prejudices known. If you openly share your feelings that you prefer workers to be seen in the office as a sign of commitment, then this immediately alienates those who are either unable to be more present (whether that’s down to location or even personal circumstances i.e. lack of childcare), and such comments might make employees feel more pressured to be in the office.

To avoid showing favouritism for solely full-time office-based workers, consider what reliability, hard work and commitment really mean to you; what does this look like? Then take note about how you feel about each person in your team. Is there a link between your go-to feelings and their place of employment? Test yourself honestly to discover if you're accidentally favouring some staff over others because of their proximity.

Leaders should also lead by example in this instance, and also demonstrate their own flexible working in order to give some reassurance to others operating remotely.

Establish the required facetime

When you’re in an office environment, there are naturally more opportunities to pull people for informal chats, impromptu meetings, and casual conversations as you roam around the building throughout the day. All of this helps with building rapport among colleagues, and so it’s only natural that people in a more remote setting would be left out of these conversations. But from a leader’s perspective, is there anything you can implement to keep communication flowing with those working elsewhere?

Leaders that are prepared to rethink the concept of connection can establish new conventions, such as looping remote workers into on-the-spot talks and providing more frequent check-ins. Messenger systems on Slack or Microsoft Teams can help with dropping remote workers quick notes back and forth, and quick Zoom calls can provide that necessary facetime to keep your team feeling included and up-to-speed on any daily events they may have missed. Why not even schedule in a virtual coffee break as an opportunity to help build relationships?

Make a mental note too of who you communicate with regularly and who you don’t speak to as often — what’s the reasoning behind this? The danger you face is if you’re dedicating more of your time to certain workers and not offering the same time to their peers of the same ranking. When pay reviews or promotions arise, you could find yourself on the receiving end of disgruntled employees who feel you’ve not given them the same treatment as their in-office counterparts.

Improve the inclusiveness of meetings

They have long been an important part of the company landscape, but in a remote setting, they've taken on even more importance because meetings are sometimes the only way for virtual employees to be seen.

As a result, paying more attention to how meetings work can help leaders question and overcome their own proximity biases, as well as the biases of others on their team. This includes paying attention to things like: do remote attendees have access to the same tools and resources as others in the meeting? Are meetings held at a time that is frequently inconvenient for those who work remotely, and can this be changed? Is the topic of conversation something that all team members can contribute to?

Consider how people both in-person and remote will be able to participate in the meeting in a way where everyone has an active role and is given air time — there’s nothing more awkward than a colleague dialling in to watch everyone else have a conversation.

Promote a cross-location community

The ultimate feeling that comes from proximity bias is one of resentment which can lead to disengaged and poor-performing employees. And the tiresome tales of remote workers ‘not really working when they’re out-of-sight’ is getting old for many people. In order to foster a more supportive community amongst team members, regardless of their location, why not set up a buddy system that pairs remote and office-based employees for mutual mentoring and support, or set up virtual hang-outs for people to catch up with workmates on a more personal level. Delegating tasks in such a way that office-based and remote staff can collaborate effectively would also promote a more positive feeling among both sides of the fence.

While organisations are still navigating best practice hybrid working, many leaders are beginning to make a conscious effort to recognise proximity bias, get to the root of the problem, and take the steps necessary to promote equity for all employees. Are you one of these companies addressing bias? Let us know how you’re conquering the problem by getting in touch on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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