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Proximity bias: The next big challenge for hybrid and remote work

Ring Central Blog

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4 min read

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Amid all the upheaval of the last couple of years, there’s been a shining success story: the move away from full-time office work. 

The forced move to remote work during the lockdown of 2020 revealed some key benefits, among them greater productivity and better work-life balance. What started out as an unplanned experiment proved to be so successful that fewer than one in five businesses say they’ll ever go back to the office full-time.

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Instead, hybrid work is here to stay. Approaches to the hybrid model, particularly around scheduling, may vary. But what they all have in common is that at any given time, some employees will likely be working from home (or other remote locations), while others will work from the office

This offers all sorts of benefits to businesses and employees alike. But it also introduces a new workforce challenge that companies will need to address: proximity bias.

What is proximity bias?

For all its benefits, hybrid work has the potential to create new chasms—particularly between those who work remotely on a full-time basis and those who can work onsite regularly.

In a nutshell, proximity bias means that employees with close proximity to their leaders are seen as better workers compared to remote employees. As a result, they’re much more likely to receive promotions, raises, and other merit increases.

Part of the problem is that outdated performance metrics that are not relevant in a hybrid world still prevail. Time in seats, for example, was seen by leadership as proof of an industrious worker—even if they weren’t productive the entire time.

Hybrid work also opens the risk of creating a system where those in the office have greater influence on decisions, especially if hybrid work is only superficially embraced. This means that those who commute most frequently have the ears of leadership, greater visibility at work, and may be more likely to reap rewards such as recognition and promotions.

Who is affected by proximity bias?

On the surface, proximity bias may not seem to be as damaging as other workplace inequalities. But because it disproportionately affects certain groups, it can actually compound existing inequalities.

For example, women are more likely to prefer remote and hybrid work models, research shows. But findings from the pandemic also showed that working mothers are three times as likely as fathers to carry the burden of housework and childcare duties

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Two-thirds of working millennial women also expressed concern that not being in the office would have an impact on their career opportunities, and 40% said they’d feel more pressure to go back to the office if the men in their company did.

Hybrid work may put others at a disadvantage as well. For example, lower-income workers who want to reduce the costs of commuting, or those who relocated to areas far from the office with lower cost of living may also bear the brunt of proximity bias. 

Meanwhile, proximity bias may disproportionately benefit those who are single, have no children, or don’t face other constraints that make it easier to work from home.

What’s the fix?

The risk of proximity bias doesn’t erase the many benefits of hybrid work. But it does require explicit action in order to prevent the unintentional creation of a two-tiered system. Here are some ways to address proximity bias:

1. Better training for managers

For years, many managers focused on superficial productivity indicators such as time-in-seats over qualitative measures that reflect actual work. Reversing proximity bias requires a shift in thinking about what productivity looks like (and doesn’t look like)—and this starts with management.

2. Lead by example

Leveling the playing field for hybrid workers means embracing this new workplace model at all levels of the business. Executives should also work hybrid schedules in order to eliminate any stigma from working from home and to send a message that remote work is valid and valued.

3. Video meetings

While video meetings were a no-brainer when everyone worked from home, they need to remain top of mind for hybrid work. They may also require some new tools and re-envisioning to support attendees both at home and in the office. 

To participate fully, all attendees should have a similar experience and be able to see and hear all aspects of the meeting, wherever they’re joining from.

4. Re-evaluate remote worker salaries

Some businesses are considering cutting the pay of remote workers. But it’s important to consider the impact such a move may have on who works from home and, more importantly, how that work is valued. 

Eliminating the risk of proximity bias means reducing unnecessary divisions between workers, including differences in salary.

Making hybrid work better

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine work. And while there is broad agreement that hybrid models are a boon for all, the shift to hybrid work does have some inherent challenges that must be addressed.

For companies that have made it a priority to empower all workers and enable everyone’s best work, hybrid work may introduce some new hurdles. But these can be overcome by making sure all employees have a voice—wherever they are.

Originally published Nov 01, 2021, updated Nov 02, 2021

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