Proximity Bias: Three Ways Leaders Can Ensure Remote Workers Aren’t Left Out in the Cold

The long-term impacts of hybrid working arrangements – particularly on the degree of trust that exists in work-related relationships – are not well understood. The research we do have, almost all of it conducted before the pandemic struck, suggests that hybrid working arrangements can have negative impacts on key relationships if specific measures are not taken to acknowledge and adjust to this new normal.

Alex Vincent, Ph.D.
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proximity bias

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but could it harm your career?

As the working world grapples with a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, employers are increasingly relying on a hybrid office strategy: most people work some of the time at home, and some of the time in an office. In many ways it’s a progressive solution that not only feeds the need of working people to have more flexibility, but also helps limit the number of people in an office at any one time.

However, the long-term impacts of hybrid working arrangements – particularly on the degree of trust that exists in work-related relationships – are not well understood. The research we do have, almost all of it conducted before the pandemic struck, suggests that hybrid working arrangements can have negative impacts on key relationships if specific measures are not taken to acknowledge and adjust to this new normal.

Anxieties that come from working remotely

Prior to the pandemic, many working people craved the opportunity to work from home, at least part of the time. After more than a year and a half of that experience, however, many remote workers are finding the experience didn’t quite live up to their expectations.

For researchers studying the impact of remote work, this was hardly a surprise. Pre-pandemic studies showed that remote work can have significant negative impacts on the key relationships we need to drive engagement, productivity and innovation.

A 2017 survey of 1,100 workers conducted by Vital Smarts, a leadership training firm, found that workplace politics became exceedingly more complex for remote workers, who were more likely to feel shunned by their colleagues, or subjected to more criticism and gossip by those still working in an office environment.

This study did not attempt to verify whether any of those things were actually happening, so those negative feelings could be explained by good old-fashioned paranoia. However, there is other research to support the idea that proximity bias – the inherent human tendency to favor the people we can see in person over those working remotely – plays a huge role in shaping the career prospects of remote workers.

A ground-breaking 2015 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business of call center employees in China found that despite being 13 percent more productive, remote workers were less likely to be promoted. There is no clearer example of the dangers of proximity bias.

Remote work means leaders and workers are often not on the same page

Even with all the remote meeting technology we have at our disposal, it appears inevitable that as we move physically away from our managers and colleagues, we begin to grow apart in many other ways as well.

Research from Gartner on the impact of the pandemic on business relationships revealed massive changes in the way people were interacting at work. A 2021 survey of 3,000 knowledge workers and their managers found that as people have become more distributed, their working lives have become more asynchronous. As the study’s authors put it, “employees and their managers will be less likely to be working on the same things at the same time. Managers will have dramatically less visibility into the realities of their employees’ day-to-day and will begin to focus more on their outputs and less on the processes used to produce them.”

What does this lack of synchronicity mean for the day-to-day working experience? Internally, it means we are connecting with fewer and fewer people.

Microsoft was so interested in the impact of a sudden shift to remote work that it began to survey more than 30,000 of its employees in 31 countries to find out exactly how the nature of work had changed in the first year of the pandemic. One of the outputs of all this research, the Microsoft Work Trend Index, analyzed trillions of productivity signals – emails, virtual meetings, online chats and posted messages – to determine who was interacting with whom, when and how.

The findings strongly suggested that remote work “shrunk people’s networks,” according to a March 2021 summary of Work Trend Index findings published in the Harvard Business Review.

Most of us know the informal interactions that come with a well-developed internal network are a key to social capital, that commodity that allows us to collaborate, create and combine efforts to solve problems. As social capital erodes, we inevitably start to feel more disconnected, particularly from managers and other leaders who, to a large extent, control our career futures. 

Research data on this phenomenon is just now starting to come into focus. A global survey of white-collar workers conducted by The Adecco Group found a huge disconnect between leaders and the people they lead on the overall state of leadership performance. This inevitably feeds feelings of frustration and anxiety across the rank-and-file of an organization’s workforce, and begins to erode productivity and engagement. 

Addressing proximity bias requires stronger relationships

How then can leaders and organizations address proximity bias and ensure that it does not leave remote workers literally and figurately out in the cold when it comes to issues like career development?

1/ Leaders need to set aside quality time with their teams. Back in the day when we all shared an office, all the time, informal interactions allowed information to be exchanged and relationships to develop organically. With remote work, leaders need to make the time for 1:1 conversations with each member of their team, to check on career issues, workflow progress and even physical and mental wellbeing. Leaders need to track these conversations to ensure every team member is getting a similar amount of face time.

Leaders should also consider partnering team members on projects. In other words, making specific requests to have people work together on a particular project. This will force people to maintain their cross-team relationships.

2/ Organizations need to reimagine their offices and how their employees use that space. Although many employers initially wanted their employees to return to the office once pandemic conditions eased, it seems more and more are now plotting some form of hybrid working arrangement. The more progressive among this group are also changing the layout and location of their offices to meet expectations for hybrid work.

It's also extremely important that organizations empower their teams to establish a hybrid schedule that works best for them. Most working people want to spend at least some time in an office setting; leaders need to find the best way of getting their teams together face-to-face with the knowledge that other teams may approach scheduling differently. The important point here is to give people more control over their working schedules.

3/ Perhaps a resiliency bonus? Most leaders are aware that their employees have put in a courageous effort over the last 20 months. These are the people who stuck with their organizations through the pandemic, did extra work when needed, and adapted to remote work without missing a beat. If there was ever a time to acknowledge their contribution, it’s now.

Like all manner of recognition programs, the rewards do not necessarily need to be monetary. People are still feeling more disconnected than they were pre-pandemic. It is very easy for that feeling to fester until it becomes a fear they are not being appreciated for their sacrifices. Taking the time to acknowledge and reward these efforts can go a long way towards retaining top talent in what is becoming a seller’s market.

The future is uncertain, but it can also be very promising for leaders and organizations that acknowledge the negative impacts of proximity bias and take steps to mitigate its impact on internal business relationships.

It seems certain now that the old eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week work schedule is a thing of the past. The organizations that acknowledge this trend and take steps to keep relationships strong will reap the greatest rewards in terms of productivity, engagement and talent retention.

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