The growing danger of proximity bias

June 1, 2022

As companies around the world battle to both attract and retain talent, offering hybrid working patterns is seen more and more as a given. Yet despite how attractive the proposition of full-time hybrid working sounds, both employers and employees face growing concerns over the potential impact of ‘proximity bias’ within their organisations.

Proximity bias occurs when those employees working in the office are favoured by managers over those working more from home, i.e. those they are in closer proximity to. This bias manifests itself in a number of ways, including: evaluating the work of those in the office differently to those at home; giving those in the office more interesting work projects; and excluding remote workers from potentially important meetings.

Writing in Silicon Republic, Jenny Darmody feels that there is still a significant amount of toxic rhetoric relating to more flexible ways of working. This ranges from major entrepreneurs like Alan Sugar down to managers who have traditionally thrived on the micromanagement now made more difficult by flexible working.

Failing to eliminate this bias will likely have a damaging impact on those who choose to work more flexibly, women in particular. Éilis Cronin writes that because women are more likely to choose to work remotely than men, leaders and managers who hold proximity bias risk snubbing women in their workforce for promotions.

Can a two-tiered workforce really work?

As proximity bias has emerged as a potential stumbling block for organisations looking to implement hybrid strategies, focus has turned to how the impact of this bias can be minimised. Gleb Tsipursky outlines an ‘Excellence From Anywhere’ strategy to protect from proximity bias. This focuses business conversation on deliverables over methods, thereby rendering discussion about location irrelevant. Meanwhile Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays, believes that leading by example is crucial, along with inclusivity in meetings and better technology, to avoiding proximity bias. If you’re the boss of a company promoting hybrid working, but you come into the office every day, consider working from home every now and again to show “that you trust and value [employees’] input when working away from the office.”

However, others have questioned whether proximity bias can truly be avoided, and by extension question the benefits of hybrid working. Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab, feels with hybrid working, offices will be seen as “the epicentres of power”, with people at home seen as an afterthought. The only way, argues Murph, of avoiding this is choosing fully in-office or fully remote setups, nothing in between. Jack Kelly echoes this, feeling that bosses will eventually revert to five days in the office. Even if people do work flexibly, there will be those who come into the office five days a week to get face time with bosses, leading to resentment from those at home.