“The flexibility genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back in.”

June 1, 2022

Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, believes that companies must recognise, if they haven’t already, that flexibility is now the name of the game, and results-based management must be the goal.

What are the key characteristics of proximity bias?

Proximity bias is the subconscious tendency to favour the people who you physically spend the most time with over others. We’re hearing about it a lot these days because of the fear that people who work from home will be inequitably compensated, promoted, and assigned to key projects.

Fact is, if managers are managing by results – which, we have known since the 50s is the best way to manage – biases are largely neutralised.

Organisations operating with a hybrid workforce should put measures in place to ensure remote workers aren’t treated as second class citizens.

Why, given we have had two years of remote working, would leaders subconsciously or otherwise favour those who work in the office over those who are remote? Is the proximity bias of leaders like Alan Sugar ‘justified’?

For the majority of managers, the pandemic opened their eyes to just how wrong their biases around work-from-home productivity were. They saw for themselves that it worked both for themselves and their people. I can’t think of a single study in the past two years, and I’ve read them all, that showed anything less than a majority of employees and managers saying productivity had either increased or stayed the same as before the pandemic. That myth is thoroughly busted and in fact was even before the forced WFH experiment but many were not convinced until they saw it for themselves.

Does the threat of proximity bias mean businesses need to change how they go about measuring performance?

Martha Johnson, former head of the US General Services Administration once said, “telework doesn’t create management problems, it reveals them.” One of the biggest reveals over the past two years is that many managers don’t know how to manage. If they think seeing people at their desks means they are working, they need to think again. I believe you’ll find the highest online shopping time is during office hours. Managing by bums in seats isn’t managing, it’s babysitting and if you treat people like children and micromanage what they do, they will pretty soon start to act like children. Work needs to be measured by what people do, not where or how they do it.

Would the easiest way of solving this simply be to return to a fully in-office setup?

Would a race car team put a driver who isn’t at his or her best behind the wheel on race day? Would a sports team field players who aren’t physically and mentally prepared for the game? Of course not. So why would we ignore the fact that we’ve learned people are happier, healthier, and more productive, and more likely to stay with the company when they are given choice and autonomy over their work lives.

Do we really think the best and the brightest all live, or are willing to live near our office? They might if you are Google, but even they and many of the other sought-after employers are finding out, the hard way – by watching people walk out the door – that the flexibility genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back in.

We will still need offices, but they will need to change to better accommodate the work that will actually be done there. At least half of what employees do requires focus. Wearing headphones to block out the office cacophony and signal to people you don’t want to be disturbed is insane.

Can technology which provides a platform for employees to provide feedback on each other and their managers in real-time help to lessen or even eliminate the threat of proximity bias?

Regular feedback from managers and peers is essential but I don’t think that will do much to reduce proximity bias. My advice for ensuring people are treated equitably is to:

  1. Educate managers and employees about all the biases that impact our thinking and how we behave
  2. Have managers and their people agree on their SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound
  3. Use collaborative tools to make work transparent
  4. Check-in at least weekly, or even daily
  5. Regularly collect data on career/compensation changes by demographics, where people work, and more.

Hybrid will be harder than either having everyone in the office or having everyone remote but the way we were working before than pandemic wasn’t working for many, if not most. Twentieth century practices are long past their sell-by date. Whether people are nine floors, nine miles, or nine time zones away, they are working remotely. It’s time we rethink the who, what, when, where, why and how of work in a way that is more sustainable for people, planet, and profit.