Preventing Proximity Bias

As we emerge from this latest Omicron wave of the pandemic, restrictions are being lifted and organizations are, once again, starting to bring some workers to the office. While the flexibility of the hybrid model is the “new normal,” employees who chose to work remotely for the majority of the week are worried about a new type of discrimination that could impact their career prospects — proximity bias. (Download our 2022 L&D Trends report that calls out the risk of proximity bias on Page 11.)


Unconscious Favouritism

Quite simply, proximity bias occurs when an employee is given preferential treatment over a co-worker because they work physically closer to their supervisor or manager and have more one-on-one face time.


Proximity bias is a natural and unconscious instinct. We tend to get to know the people we sit closest to and work with on a daily basis. This camaraderie becomes part of our cognitive decision-making process that prioritizes what feels “safe.” The outcome is that we often trust and value the skills of those around us, while overlooking other qualified individuals who are out of sight. In short, managers tend to think that office workers tend to perform higher than remote workers.


New Normal, Same Old Biases

According to a new Future Forum report, women, parents and people of colour are spending the least amount of time in the office, instead opting for flexible work arrangements at a higher rate than their peers. It also states that, in the US, white knowledge workers are spending the most time in the office by a significant margin—as great as 17%.


Globally, 84% of men work in the office all or some of the time, compared to 79% of women. And 75% of working parents work remotely or hybrid, compared to 63% of non-parents. Many worry that the halo effect of these choices will result in workplace inequities along gender and racial lines, especially in terms of career development.


Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, stated, “A hybrid model can foster a more flexible and inclusive workplace, but only if leaders are intentional about establishing guardrails to ensure all employees have equal access to opportunity and can participate on a level playing field.”


So, what can leaders do to make sure out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind?


Raise Awareness Levels

L&D pros need to ensure that managers and senior leaders understand what proximity bias is, and may want to consider training to prevent it. Oftentimes, awareness goes a long way to bias prevention.


Practise What You Preach

If organizations are championing flexibility as a company-wide benefit, yet leaders spend most of their time working in the office, it can lead to a double standard that favours the employees—most often white males—who choose to come into the office.


Allow for Preparation

Prior to any meetings, send around an agenda and be sure to include any specific notes to show what each team member will be responsible for. This allows remote employees to show up prepared for the call, and can ensure maximum visibility for those outside of the office.


One-to-One Meetings

No matter whether team members are in the office or at home, managers and leaders should set aside time for one-to-one check-ins with everyone. This allows bonds to grow no matter where someone is located.


Create In-Person Opportunities

If budgets allow, create opportunities for your team to get together IRL. Whether for a holiday party, annual strategic planning or team connection events, face-to-face meetings placed intentionally over the course of each quarter can bridge communication gaps.


Focus on Outcomes

HR will have to work closely with leaders to ensure that career progression is centred around performance outputs, and not where the employee is located.


If you’re curious about how The Roundtable can help your organization develop a more inclusive culture, let’s start a conversation.  And, be sure to download our 2022 L&D Trends Report for more insights into the issues affecting L&D professionals in the year ahead.