Leaders must avoid proximity bias affecting their hybrid workforce

There are benefits for both employee and employer.

When some of an organisation’s workforce isn’t present in the office at the same time, there is the risk of proximity bias, in which preferential treatment is given to those working within the office environment. Traditionally, proximity bias may have been manifested in the workplace by how close someone sits to the leadership team. In the new world of work, however, the meaning has evolved to relate to those who work from the office more than their colleagues who work remotely.
Commenting on the challenges proximity bias can bring to a business, Hays CEO, Alistair Cox, says, “There are many dangers that proximity bias brings to the workplace and simply assuming it is not happening in your own business is unrealistic. One obvious danger is the subconscious exclusion of people from having the opportunity to work on big projects generated from the centre or working on a major new client account.”
When workers believe they are being excluded, it can lead to them feeling unhappy and disengaged. This can be costly for organisations, as workers become detached and productivity can suffer as a result. Proximity bias also has the potential to destroy diversity within an organisation. Two groups that could be more impacted are workers living with a disability and informal caregivers. Commuting to a physical office can be a difficult task for some workers, and women are more likely to play a greater role in childcare, which might make working full time in an office environment difficult.
Alistair says, “Hybrid working therefore helps these groups. If you are showing favourable treatment to workers in the office, you can cause a negative impact on your workforce diversity.”
Alistair offers his advice to leaders on how they can avoid proximity bias within their organisations.
  • Promote hybrid working
    Alistair says that business leaders should lead by example, stating, “Remember, action speaks louder than words and people look to their leaders’ own approach to interpret what is really valued. So, if you are coming in everyday, work from home sometimes and show others that you trust and value their input when working away from the office.”
  • Hold inclusive meetings
    Organisations must be inclusive in their thinking and interactions, employees should feel included regardless of their location. Meetings with attendees who have joined in person and individuals who have entered virtually can present problems, as it can be easier to focus on those who are physically in the same room.

    To combat this issue, Alistair suggests holding important meetings virtually, “That means everyone is on a level playing field. If that’s not possible, be aware of how inclusive you are being of the whole group. Importantly, make sure business critical decisions are not being made in one meeting. If an idea comes to light between you and others who are in the office that day, arrange a follow-up with all of those working remotely.”

  • Invest in updated technology
    Organisations must ensure they are using the right technology to facilitate a more inclusive environment between those in the office and remote workers. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have added features to their meeting platforms to address hybrid working. Both companies have created technology that uses machine learning and AI technology to improve the experience of meetings for employees joining remotely, which help them to feel as though they are in the room.
  • Engage your employees
    Alistair suggests business leaders ask their workforce how they feel about proximity bias as this will enable organisations to understand if a problem exists, and to what extent. <br> Sandra Henke, Global Head of People and Culture at Hays, said, “Make sure you have the necessary open channels of communication, so employees are able to voice their concerns or provide feedback. Ensure all employees, no matter where they are based, are taking part in company and team activities, so they don’t feel left out. Remind your team that you are all in it together, every employee – whether they are in the office or at home – has a role to play in sustaining the company’s culture in the next era of work.”
Alistair closes by saying, “Being aware of the dangers and the solutions to proximity bias are crucial for leaders to maintain a productive, effective and engaged workforce.”


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