How proximity bias holds employees (and workplaces) back

Many companies still hold on to the idea that workers who physically come into the office are more productive than their remote counterparts.

How proximity bias holds employees (and workplaces) back
[Photo: DGLimages/iStock]

Successful businesses depend on their ability to make the right decisions. That’s why interest in “cognitive bias”—the set of faulty perceptions which can often taint our judgments—is not only growing in clinical psychology: it’s a growing focus in the boardroom, too. There are many forms of cognitive biases, but one, in particular, is often overlooked. I’m calling it “proximity bias.”


How proximity bias plays out in the workplace

Proximity bias is the incorrect assumption that people will produce better work if they are physically present in the office and managers can see (and hear them) doing their jobs. This has been a long-standing expectation of businesses of a different era. But today, with modern technology and communication styles, it’s no longer always true. And yet people still hold themselves to this expectation—or expect it from others—creating cultural conflicts and divides between the office and remote workers.

Remote working is increasingly sought-after by workers and more widely practiced by employers. That is understandable. Widening the geographical scope grows the available talent pool while allowing remote working improves employee retention and attraction. No wonder our research found that 52% of employees now work from home at least once a week.

But there’s a difference between preaching the remote work gospel and actually practicing. Many companies now talk a good game, yet when you look beneath the surface, they exhibit underlying proximity bias. Some common beliefs include the idea that working from home is an escape from or substandard to “real” work. Their employees may feel judgment or a fear of judgment from coworkers when they do work from home. They may also fear that working remotely will disadvantage career progression, so they ignore otherwise-available remote opportunities.

Proximity bias hurts employees and companies

I know how easy it is to feel this way. When I worked for a previous employer, there was a very important brainstorm on a day when I was, unfortunately, as sick as a dog. Now, there was no reason that I should commute in—the company allowed us to work from home, was flexible by nature, and had video conferencing to make remote meetings possible. But I saw “phoning it in” as a considerable risk, and I felt that not showing up would damage my chance to drive change. And so I came into the office (and probably made everyone sick in the process.)

The consequences of proximity bias echo louder than a sneeze. If a remote-friendly company unintentionally develops a culture that considers home-workers second-class citizens, it risks squandering all the hard-won competitive differentiators that remote working brings.


But all is not lost. Just as there are ways we can counteract our other fallible behaviors, there are some techniques we can use to combat proximity bias. Here are the methods that I’ve used with my team.

1. Equal-opportunity contact

That serendipitous brainstorm at the desk may seem harmless, but communication and collaboration that leave remote workers out of the loop can be detrimental to company culture. The same goes for sending after-the-fact documents or fragments of communication referring to initiatives that employees discussed in person. Such practices can exacerbate feelings of lack of integration among remote workers.

Companies that treat remote workers as an afterthought are doing themselves a disservice. They’re not getting the best out of their employees and aren’t allowing remote workers the full opportunity to provide value. If you’re a company leader, you need to ensure that every formulation of work accommodates multiple location types.

2. Be active about including remote workers in meetings

The care you take when including remote workers in meeting speaks volumes about the extent of your bias. Don’t get 90% of the way through a meeting in a riveting discussion only to give Jennifer in Omaha her special five minutes at the end. As a company leader, you need to support participation for people, not their locations.

Because most communication is nonverbal, those people also need to be visible to each other. Two-way video conferencing reveals the subtle clues meeting parties need to understand the intention and to recognize interventions in conversation.


3. Intentional management

When workers are remote from bosses, leaders’ all-important management style may need a reboot. How do you give staff the feedback and praise they need to meet their goals and get through the day? If you are the sort of manager who mosies through the cubicles every afternoon, that isn’t going to translate well in the nonphysical work world.

Some will attempt to gauge impact using the inadequate butts-in-seats method, or seek to translate their practices by measuring “time on chat” with remote workers. But this is usually a bad idea; in fact, fear that an employee is not working has an inverse relationship to the work itself. That is why I lean toward a results-led management style. We focus on measuring results regardless of when and where an employee does their work. For example, my department has a KPI scorecard that we manage and update weekly. Now I can easily see where my direct reports need support and can bring it up during my one-on-ones. This is something that can be helpful to both on-site and off-site workers alike.

4. Equal-opportunity development

Every organization needs to create opportunities to help staff move up through the ranks. But, when someone isn’t visible on-site, many employees fear being overlooked for new opportunities.

If there is an opportunity to present to the senior leadership team, don’t just pick the staffer who happens to be present. Pick the best person for the task—whether they’re remote or in the office. This doesn’t just benefit your organization immediately; it also creates a reverberating benefit. People need to see that people like them can succeed and that being a frequent patron of the office is not necessarily a required recipe for success. When they do, it will solidify the idea that it is one’s work that determines your long-term path—not your location.


5. Focus on leading by example

Workplaces often change best when change comes from the top. If your CEO is an alpha leader who prizes long hours in the office, think about the message that sends to the rest of the company. It can contradict what habits the organization values despite claiming to be remote-friendly. This is proximity bias at work.

Instead, leaders need to show that remote working is viable and attainable. Encourage your leaders to model the way and work and take meetings from home.

It is pleasing that so many companies are now enjoying the benefits that supporting remote work can bring—from attracting a new wealth of talent to enabling staff to better balance out their lives.

But, just as we need to consider psychological quirks like confirmation bias in the workplace, I think more businesses need to check their proximity bias urgently. If we don’t, we will risk undoing the remote opportunity and losing out to competitors. So, let’s break through the wall and work hard to ensure that working from home (or from wherever we want to) really is okay.

Rebecca Corliss is the VP of Marketing at Owl Labs