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Do employers favour employees working in the office over those working remotely? It's a serious question organisations are asking as the number of remote and/or hybrid workers continues to rise worldwide.

This phenomenon is called proximity bias, and it has significant consequences for the workforce in 2022 and beyond. Whether you are a manager or employee, you should understand proximity bias and how it could be affecting your team and workplace.

Learn more about proximity bias, how it impacts hybrid and remote teams, and what you can do to help.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias is the idea that a leader or manager may give preferential treatment to employees physically closer to them. The bias is usually unconscious with the old saying 'out of sight, out of mind' being a simple way to reflect on why it happens.   

The growing fear is that being an office-based versus remote employee could have a huge impact on your chances for promotion or salary increase with the latter at a bigger disadvantage.

Proximity bias can also happen during hybrid meetings. People in physical attendance may be more likely to voice their opinions and be heard by management. Also, the in-person attendees are always visible compared to remote workers who are only on-screen when speaking. At a recent event at LinkedIn’s London headquarters, leaders discussed the impact of hybrid working and proximity bias. In their example, one of their meetings had both local or present attendees in the room as well as a sophisticated AV setup for remote participants. During the meeting, one member of the LinkedIn leadership team had subconsciously angled themselves to discuss topics facing attendees in-room as opposed to the camera and thereby excluding the remote audience.

How Does Proximity Bias Affect the Team?

For 100% remote teams, proximity bias is not necessarily an issue. But for global teams or hybrid teams, it can impact employee engagement, workforce diversity, and work culture.

For example, research shows that women, prefer to work remotely partly as they are more likely to be primary caregivers. While new attitudes to remote work may allow more women the flexibility to continue their parental responsibilities alongside having a career, proximity bias means that they're at a disadvantage when it comes time to seek pay increases or promotions. Where one change improves the gender gap, another problem creeps in to undo the hard work. 

Lower-income employees may also be at a disadvantage if they choose to work remotely to save commuting costs or if they relocated to an area further from the office but with a lower cost of living

Additionally, proximity bias within hybrid meetings of global teams can lead to the destruction of team culture and diversity. Hosting meetings can be difficult, especially when leaders inadvertently value those present physically more than those on screen. It is much harder for someone remotely to interject and add their opinions. Additionally, depending on what platform is being used, the remote attendees may not be seen throughout the meeting unless they speak. Working as a global team takes much effort to function collaboratively. Understanding and following etiquette as well as encouraging inclusivity is essential; if leaders fail to recognise and address proximity bias in these situations, it could lead to alienating team members from diverse backgrounds.

How Can Organizations Remove Proximity Bias?

Leaders can start to remove proximity bias by developing standards for pay raises and promotions for all employees and by being mindful of the differences between workers. They can also hold training for managers to alert them to this potential problem in the workplace. Often this type of bias is entirely unconscious, meaning the first step to improving outcomes is raising awareness of it. 

Bringing awareness to proximity bias can help leaders rethink how they incorporate remote employees into day-to-day decisions. They may be able to quickly identify opportunities to be more inclusive. For example, by systematically addressing all individuals during meetings, whether remote or present, all attendees are given equal discussion involvement.

Companies can encourage all employees to use video during hybrid meetings. Or they can host hybrid events to promote employee engagement. 

Make 2022 Your Best Year

There are many reasons why companies have embraced remote work in the past few years and it's helped elevate so many aspects of company culture. However, all the hard work in recruiting and creating such top talent teams will slowly come undone if proximity bias is given the space to proliferate. By leaving those that work remotely behind there is the very real risk of increased staff losses and a bigger risk of professional disparity between the office-based and remote workers. To avoid this problem and create more opportunities for equality, think about assessing what proximity bias levels exist at your organisation today and make changes accordingly. 

We hope we've made a small impact on your day by bringing proximity bias to your attention if you weren't already aware of it. 

Consortia are a specialist recruitment company dedicated to finding top talent in the areas of UX, Product, Development and Data. In doing so we are passionate about keeping in the know about current trends and issues surrounding recruitment within the tech industry. Contact us for help with your tech recruitment requirements or if you have a topic around recruiting and retention within one of our speciality fields that you would like to see more about let us know. 

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