Tackling proximity bias in the workplace

Humans tend to respond more positively to people they see, but what does this mean in a new world of remote working?

The concept of the office is undergoing radical transformation, but there are concerns that workplace bias might not be swept away by all the changes.

Prior to coronavirus, many workers probably experienced presenteeism, the pressure to be in the office for longer hours under the widely held, but usually mistaken, notion that presence equals productivity.

In the new world that’s unfolding – a hybrid style of working that balances home-based and office-based hours – a related problem is emerging: proximity bias.

Essentially, if workers are seldom or no longer in the office, how do they get noticed and get their contribution recognised?

And how do managers overcome their natural and unconscious bias of favouring colleagues who are either in the office with them or collaborating on a project remotely?

Humans employ a cognitive strategy known as heuristics, mental shortcuts to help solve problems and make decisions more quickly.

We use previous experiences, or biases, to assist our judgments about things and although this helps us reach conclusions more quickly, that doesn’t mean we always end up with the right answer.

“You perceive your judgment to be logical, but because you’re using shortcuts, it might lead you to the wrong assumption,” says Ali Shalfrooshan, occupational psychologist at workplace solutions provider PSI Services.

In the context of the emerging hybrid working model, Shalfrooshan says proximity bias is not so much about being physically present, but about being “seen” or “not seen”.

“It’s not so much the concept of office/not office but seen/not seen,” he says. “The proximity bias that people will be dealing with is ‘if I do not see your output I do not value you’. That’s the bias I see playing out.”

Mounting concerns over bias

Proximity bias in itself isn’t unlawful, says Stephen Ravenscroft, head of employment at law firm Memery Crystal, but the locations people choose to work from may be connected to different types of characteristics that are protected under discrimination legislation.

For instance, people with disabilities might find it easier to work from home, and female workers might be more likely to ask for flexible and remote working as statistically they are more involved with childcare and home duties.

Of course, proximity bias, real or imagined, can have an effect on anyone. “If someone is feeling like they aren’t getting the same opportunities because they’re working under a hybrid arrangement or permanently working from home, then the most sensible thing to do is to try and address that directly with their line manager to understand whether their perception is reality or whether there might be other explanations,” says Ravenscroft.

If that fails to yield results, then employees could speak to their human resources department or consult the conciliation service ACAS in cases where communication between employee and employer breaks down.

You perceive your judgment to be logical, but because you’re using shortcuts, it might lead you to the wrong assumption

Ravenscroft says while proximity bias is not a widely pervasive issue yet, he expects it to be a “rising concern” as the hybrid way of working becomes more established.

Potential changes to legislation could also have a bearing on this. “It has been proposed the [draft] Employment Bill [due to be debated] this year will make flexible working the kind of expected standard for businesses that can cater for it and the employer will have to show why it isn’t appropriate in certain circumstances,” Ravenscroft adds.

“That’s a 180-degree turn from now, where the employee has to explain why they should be allowed it and the employer has a set of reasons under which they can refuse it.”

Addressing the problem

Employers are likely to have fewer issues if they clearly communicate their plans to employees and ensure there is logic behind any new rules.

It’s unlikely all employee requests can be met due to every company’s need to strike a balance between profitability, efficiency and employee satisfaction, but genuine attempts to take on board input from workers is likely to lead to a more collegiate working environment.

Sally Todd, partner at flexible working consultants DuoMe, says organisations will have to develop new ways of working to help ensure all team members are “visible”.

“If a manager can’t rely on people being at their desk now to keep up with what’s going on, it will be harder to gauge how people are progressing without systems in place to allow people to document progress, record actions, and share and retrieve work at different times,” she says.

The University of Sussex Business School’s Dr Emma Russell, whose co-authored book Agile Working and Wellbeing in the Digital Age is the first review of research related to the impact of agile working on employees, backs up the point about visibility, suggesting remote workers can feel “professionally isolated”.

“In a recent study of lockdown-enforced remote workers, 64% reported weaker bonds with their colleagues and 56% felt less well connected to their employer,” says Russell.

Todd believes planning will be critical for organisations to succeed in an emerging new hybrid world.

This includes planning scheduled office time to allow colleagues to network, only requesting staff be in the office when their presence is vital, and to enable team leaders to engage with remote workers to reduce potential feelings of proximity bias.

Focusing on outcomes rather than hours at a desk, or logged in, is key and allowing employees to work when they want is pivotal for truly flexible working.

During lockdown, some experts have suggested the deluge of meetings on apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams means “office hours” have remained the norm, with only workers’ locations being different.

“In a hybrid world, you want to be reducing the burden of real-time chats or live videos, because they don’t work unless everyone uses them at the same time, and as people work in a more hybrid way, they won’t want to be doing the same thing at the same time,” says Todd. “The notion of office and remote hours not happening at the same time is really critical.”

Workplaces that can make that shift, and enable employees to record their input, have a greater chance of thriving in this emerging new world of work.