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Proximity Bias and the Remote/Hybrid Employee: What’s a Leader to Do?

proximity bias mapToday’s hybrid and remote environments offer organizations a range of ways to deploy staff and get work done. But flexible new arrangements also introduce complexity. What’s the impact on culture when huge numbers of employees are no longer co-located? How can we handle the resentment of those who, because of their roles, cannot work elsewhere? What will the office of the future look like? How can communication remain clear and consistent when the workforce is so dramatically distributed?

Perhaps the most vexing question, though, is: How can leaders ensure fair and equal treatment to all employees? Because ‘face-time’ or ‘proximity’ bias now joins the lengthy list of biases we must become aware of and guard against to ensure the success of hybrid and remote efforts.

To be fair, this issue isn’t new. UK government data on home-based work over the past decade suggests that, even pre-pandemic, working remotely “could negatively affect an employee’s earning potential, their chances of promotion and their likelihood of receiving a bonus.” And an April 2021 survey of US employees finds that 52% fear being remote means having fewer chances for career advancement. What is new, however, is the volume of employees facing this new reality and the risks it poses to an organization in terms of reduced diversity among leadership ranks, unwanted turnover, lackluster performance, and even legal action.

While it’s frequently thought that the success of hybrid and remote workplaces rests with executives or human resources executives, the truth is that in many ways, it’s in the hands of leaders and employees.

This article is the first of a two-part series that will offer steps we can take to combat proximity bias and help our organizations realize the extraordinary benefits associated with a well-functioning distributed workforce. This first part addresses the leader’s role. Next month, we’ll explore what employees can do as well.

The Leader’s Role

Leaders have always played a central role in the employee experience, but they may be even more of a lynchpin today for hybrid and remote workers. That’s why overcoming proximity bias becomes all the more critical. You can take steps in the right direction with these strategies.

Raise your personal awareness.

Overcoming any bias requires first becoming aware of it. So, begin by exploring how you really feel about remote work and workers. Honestly confront your personal preferences (which might include having all team members in one place). Consider your assumptions about those who operate virtually? Ask yourself what ‘reliability’, ‘hard work’ and ‘commitment’ look like. Take some time to reflect and unpack what’s operating unconsciously (as well as consciously) around this topic for you.

Once you’ve begun to understand your own biases, take a look at your team. Notice your feelings toward each member. Is there a relationship between your go-to resources and where they work? Candidly challenge yourself to see if you may be inadvertently favoring some employees over others based upon proximity.

Redefine ‘face-time’ and ‘right place, right time’.

Serendipity is part of business. The informal give-and-take wandering around the office, impromptu meetings, and casual watercooler conversations certainly contribute to culture and the informal flow of information among employees. But these shouldn’t be the exclusive vehicles for making that happen. Leaders who are willing to reimagine the idea of connection can create new norms – like spontaneously looping remote workers into an on-the-spot conversation and formalizing informal conversations with more frequent check-ins.

Pro-Tip: Create a roster of all employees. Each time you have even a casual exchange with someone, mark it down. Routinely review the roster to consider your natural connection trends and the biases that might be associated with your behavior. Then, make a point to even things out with more – and more conscious – attention to communicating with those who were underrepresented on the roster.

Establish clear and measurable expectations and standards for all employees (and use them to make data-driven people decisions).

One of the first steps toward ensuring equity among team members is to hold everyone to objective standards. Doing so allows you to evaluate specific, observable performance data against the established measuring stick. This can help you focus on the quality of the work rather than where the work is performed. And as with any bias, it can be helpful to check yourself by seeking out and considering disconfirming evidence. Allow data (rather than impressions) to drive decisions and actions that are fair and equitable.

Elevate the inclusive quality of meetings.

Meetings have long been an important feature of the business landscape; but in a remote environment, they’ve taken on greater significance because meetings tend to be a virtual employee’s primary vehicle for visibility. As a result, additional attention to how meetings operate can help leaders challenge and combat their own proximity biases – as well as the biases of other team members. This includes attention to such things as:

  • Technology: Is the meeting platform accessible to everyone? Do remote attendees have the same tools and ability to participate as others?
  • Configuration: Is it better for all employees (even those who are co-located) to dial in from separate phones/computers to even the playing field?
  • Scheduling: Are meetings scheduled at a time that consistently disadvantages those who work virtually? Can the schedule rotate among times zones to ‘spread the pain’?
  • Agenda: Does the agenda include items that all team members can contribute to? (If your purpose is information sharing, meetings are a very costly way to make that happen. Consider another form of communication instead.)
  • Roles: Will those who are joining remotely be playing as active a role as others? Is there a way to share responsibilities (facilitation, timekeeping, note-taking, etc.) with virtual attendees?

Build a sense of community among employees.

Leaders experience proximity bias. But so do employees. And this can lead to a variety of negative outcomes within a team – from resentment to hostility, disengagement to undesirable performance. That’s why leaders should prioritize creating the conditions that build support among employees.

You can do this in a variety of ways. Encourage the sharing of progress and accomplishments. (When co-located employees don’t have visibility to what their virtual peers are doing, it’s easy for them to assume that nothing is happening.) Launch a buddy system with remote and co-located employees paired up for reciprocal mentoring and support. Create open chat space/virtual water coolers. And strategically delegate work in a way that ensures collaboration between co-located and remote employees.

Unfortunately, bias takes many forms and has many targets. But there’s growing awareness of its insidious impact in an increasing number of organizations, and many leaders are making a conscious effort to root it out, understand it, and take the steps necessary to ensure equity for all employees. With 26% of the American workforce working remotely through this year, ‘where someone performs their work’ is another bias we must address immediately.

Check in next month for strategies that you – and employees in general – can implement to combat the potentially career-thwarting impact of proximity bias.

Employee engagement will be key in the months to come – to retain the employees you have and to build an employment brand that will attract top talent. And career development is a primary driver to make both happen. If you’re looking for actionable strategies for growing and retaining employees, download our latest complimentary e-guide, “Looking to Improve Engagement? Look No Further than Career Development.”

Thank you to Peter Giulioni for his research that contributed to this article.

This post was originally published on SmartBrief.


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