Many organizations are currently wrestling with the potential implications of hybrid working. The topic seems to inspire a range of different perspectives and views but almost everyone agrees on its importance. A recent survey by PwC shows that only 19% of organizations are planning to have their workforce operating fully in person this fall, with the majority taking a hybrid approach.
Obviously, remote working is nothing new and since the pandemic, many feel like seasoned veterans in all things virtual working. However, what is different about the potential hybrid future, is that unlike at the height of the pandemic when the employees who could, worked exclusively virtually, the hybrid world will be much more idiosyncratic and varied.
The hybrid workplace is inherently flexible, so on a practical level, the workforce will be made of remote workers, on-site workers, and hybrid workers. Some are happy to remain at home, others are desperate to return, and many want a mix of both. Therefore, the office experience will vary significantly depending on the preferred work status of its employees, managers, and leaders.
The choices being made by these leaders regarding their hybrid, remote, or on-site status have led many in the workforce to be concerned by a phenomenon called proximity bias. This is the idea that employees with close proximity to their leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their counterparts.
Proximity bias, like any bias, is unconscious. It’s a part of our cognitive decision-making process, shaped by evolution to enable us to make very quick judgments that are accurate enough, which typically prioritize our safety. Despite the process of making these decisions being incredibly sophisticated, the use of these mental shortcuts doesn’t always lead to the level of accuracy we perceive they do.
This has led many who would like to maintain their remote worker status to be concerned about the negative impact of proximity bias on their career. However, the truth is, especially in the hybrid world of work, the impact of proximity bias isn’t that simple. In a truly hybrid work environment, the permutations are endless, your leaders may be fully remote, coming into the office on different days, working in a different country, etc.
Consequently, proximity bias may not just play out in the physical realm but also in the virtual one too. Therefore, it can impact the meetings you are invited to, the extent that you speak on calls, how aware people are of your role and responsibilities. This may all lead to inaccurate attributions of your value.
A new approach is needed
The gravitational pull of the office has been readjusted and so the concept of a physical place where everyone interacts is no longer the paradigm for many organizations. This change will not only impact the very foundations of how we conceptualize the office but also how we effectively manage, motivate, and engage our staff.
Consequently, we need to reconsider how we navigate the world of work and mitigate the potential issues that proximity bias may elicit. A critical step when trying to address proximity bias is making managers, leaders, and employees aware of it. However, more broadly there are two core strategies that can be taken to help support an effective hybrid workplace.
Update how we operate
There are many processes that organizations can adopt, which facilitate greater connection and update how we operate to address proximity bias.
1. Invest in tools that facilitate transparency
There are a range of online tools and solutions that enable us to both create communities, plan our work, and make our tasks visible. Adopting software and processes that can help facilitate this can help facilitate transparency. The use of methodologies used in software development such as sprint planning can help all of us see what everyone else in the team is doing. This requires increased planning and discussion but ensures everyone’s work is visible and enables greater transparency.
2. Take an all-or-nothing approach to virtual meetings
With more organizations adopting hybrid working. A key strategy to ensure everyone is on a level playing field is to adopt an all-or-nothing approach with virtual meetings. To minimize employees creating a ‘them and us’ attitude, office and remote workers need to maintain a similar approach of having meetings fully virtually to ensure everyone has a similar experience and feel fully included.
3. Have ad hoc conversations
Reflect on who you have talked to recently and the types of conversations that you have had. Set up weekly meetings with colleagues who are not in your department. This could be something that you facilitate or something your organization can help with. The premise is that you are interacting with a wider group of contacts and facilitating the type of ad hoc communication that may have happened in the office.
4. Create space
Like anything, the more effort you put in, the more you get out. Working in a hybrid world means that you may need to invest more time in things that may have been more spontaneous. You need to create additional space to engage and interact with others.
Invest in people’s soft skills
A fundamental change in the way we work is at the heart of hybrid working. Change can be very positive, but it requires personal resources to manage it effectively. Our research into change has shown that resilience is a critical psychological strategy that enables us to maintain performance and wellbeing during challenges and change.
Resilience is both a resource and a set of psychological strategies that can help people manage change. These psychological strategies can be developed through concerted effort, and organizations can help facilitate this by investing in employees’ soft skills. Resilience may not directly address proximity bias but resilience helps enable employees to thrive during times of change. The more people are equipped with these skills, the more likely they are to manage the changes in hybrid working. They will also have increased capacity to adapt how they operate to build greater connections with others.
The extent to which an individual is willing to adapt their behavior and approach in response to changing circumstances. This strategy is important for resilience, as individuals can flex their approach to meet the needs of the challenge and they are able to perceive change as positive.
The extent to which an individual can generate a range of creative solutions to problems that they experience. This strategy is important for dealing with adversities as individuals are able to consider alternate ways of doing things to solve problems.
The extent to which an individual enjoys experiences that challenge them and perceives stretching situations as opportunities to learn and develop. This strategy is important as this ensures an individual will already be comfortable with tackling challenges and see change as a great opportunity to grow.
This shift to hybrid work needs to be supported by the organization, leaders, and managers so they can get the best out of their teams. Any change requires action and the transition to hybrid working will need both time and effort to address issues such as proximity bias effectively. However, with the right support, processes, and guidance, organizations can thrive during this transition to the new world of work.
Ali Shalfrooshan is the head of International Research & Development at PSI Talent Management.