Is proximity bias damaging women’s career prospects?

Proximity bias is a real risk facing firms that employ both office-based and remote workers. What’s more, it’s likely to have a bigger negative impact on women

Words such as ‘hybrid’ and ‘flexible’ might make the world of work seem more desirable to some people than it was before the pandemic, but employers need to understand a key risk associated with remote working.

A growing problem for people who work remotely is so-called proximity bias. This is the tendency among managers to rank those employees who sit alongside them in the office more highly than those they see mostly on their computer screens during video meetings.

This inequity is likely to affect women disproportionately. Female workers bore the brunt of hardships when the pandemic started and could well be at a disadvantage when it ends too. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that they were about a third more likely than men to have worked in an industry that ground to a halt during the UK’s first Covid lockdown. The IFS’s research also suggests that, even in cases where mothers in heterosexual couples were in higher-paid jobs than their partners were before the pandemic, they still had to interrupt their paid work more for childcare duties during the school closures.

A recent survey by FlexJobs has found that 80% of women, compared with 69% of men, rank the option of working remotely as one of the most important factors when considering a new employer. Companies will increasingly have to cater for this demand in order to attract talent. But, in so doing, they need to be aware of the potential ramifications and must implement strategies to ensure that all workers feel connected to their organisation.

Effective communication is the key, according to Rohan Maheswaran, associate director of technical recruitment at Futureheads Recruitment.

“If there is good communication between employer and employee, there is likely to be less bias and a better relationship,” he says.

To help employers stop assuming that presence equals productivity, Maheswaran recommends that they evaluate all employees objectively, using data-driven metrics to measure outcomes rather than focusing on how many hours each person has spent in the office.

Gemma Gordon is group people director at real-estate company Urban Splash, which specialises in regenerating residential and commercial buildings. The firm has long allowed flexible working, but it has recently formalised arrangements to ensure that all employees know exactly what’s available to them and where they stand.

“We offer flexibility that matches people’s lifestyles,” she says. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Urban Splash offered employees who were parents 10 days’ extra leave – a perk that has been retained. Gordon reports that six female members of her team who’d been on part-time contracts before the Covid crisis are now full-timers because they can now work whenever it suits them, providing that they hit their targets.

If you’re very responsive, remote working shouldn’t have a negative impact on you as an employee 

The firm has also recruited 38 people – split equally by gender – over the past 12 months. A recent staff survey has found that all but 2% of respondents believe that working remotely has either improved or not changed their productivity, compared with working at HQ.

Gordon agrees with Maheswaran that managing the remote workforce effectively hinges on good communication. “Not communicating is a really dangerous thing,” she warns, adding that her company ensures that line managers are in regular contact their team members. 

Eliane Lugassy, co-founder and CEO of proptech firm Witco, says that her organisation has minimised the risk of proximity bias by implementing a clear framework for remote working.

This uses “key performance indicators, so that everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them” and how they can progress in the business, says Lugassy, who also highlights the importance of effective communication – in both directions.

If it’s hard for your line manager and other colleagues to communicate with you, remote working “can complicate things”, she notes. “But, if you’re very responsive, it shouldn’t have a negative impact on you as an employee.”

Lugassy says that, when the lockdown restrictions ended and people were permitted to return to the office, that she made her requirements clear. After consulting her employees, she settled on asking them to come in three days a week, largely to develop some cultural cohesion.

Being explicit about her expectations and trusting people to work when they feel at their most productive has had a positive effect on staff retention, she says, but recruitment is another matter.

“Employees are seeking a lot of flexibility. As an employer, you must decide if that’s good for your business and be clear about what you can and cannot offer in this respect,” Lugassy advises.

Awareness training could help to mitigate the risk of proximity bias. Diane Gilhooley, a partner and global head of HR and pensions at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, says that it’s important for employers with remote and hybrid works to recognise the danger, which “will be a fairly new to a lot of sectors”.

Employers also need to have a strategy, she advises. This should address all employees’ expectations, ensuring that meetings include everyone, regardless of their location. It should also include technology and skills audits to ensure that people are properly equipped to work remotely.

All of our team members should have access to career growth opportunities 

The task of running a remote team will be new to many managers, so they are also likely to need support in this respect. So says Cheney Hamilton, who started Find Your Flex (originally called in 2016 after struggling to find the kind of flexible employment she needed anywhere else. Now she helps other employers to develop inclusive work cultures. 

Hamilton says that minimising proximity bias is about “putting people first” and ensuring that all workers, regardless of their location, have equal access to things such as career development opportunities.

Employers must be clear about what types of flexibility they can accommodate and ensure that their employment contracts don’t unintentionally remove flexibility, she adds.

Hamilton believes that flexible working should no longer be viewed through the prism of parenthood, given that it has become relevant to all kinds of people, not just those with young children. She notes that some enlightened companies are “altering their reward mechanisms and turning their businesses into outcome-focused entities”, citing them as blueprints for the future.

Before such approaches become the norm tomorrow, moves such as those being made by office leasing platform ShareSpace are likely to attract and retain talent today. The company allows parents to bring their children to the office, for instance, and is recruiting for roles that offer predominantly remote work.

ShareSpace’s HR manager, Olimpia Kicielińska says: “We believe that, whether they’re working from home or in our offices in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin or London, all of our team members should have access to career growth opportunities.”

If a firm can make good on such aims and prove itself to be truly inclusive to all staff, whether they’re office-based, remote or hybrid workers, it will show that it has proximity bias under control. This in turn could give it a crucial edge in a war for talent that’s showing few signs of easing.