Back to Top

How to Avoid Proximity Bias

Charles Kergaravat
November 23, 2021

A recent Gartner survey revealed that 82% of company leaders want to implement some form of hybrid work, but only 13% are concerned about proximity bias.

Proximity bias may not be keeping leaders up at night just yet. But perhaps it should be.

It’s a workplace-culture killer that can lead to communication disconnect, information silos, employee unhappiness, and put fuel on the great resignation fire. So, if your company has pivoted to a hybrid work model (or plans to), the dangers of proximity bias need to be addressed.

This article will dive into what proximity bias looks like in the workplace and how you can ensure an even playing field across the company.

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias is the tendency to give individuals who are physically closer to us preferential treatment. It’s also an unconscious bias, which means it usually affects our decision-making unintentionally.

Mere Exposure Effect

If left unrecognized, proximity bias can quickly lead to problems. And with the rise in hybrid workplaces, it’s even more urgent that we bring this bias out in the open. 

Because this bias makes leaders subconsciously favor those nearest to them, employees who work from home can suffer despite better productivity

When proximity bias is unchecked, remote employees are more likely to get passed up for raises, promotions, and other accolades, than office workers who have regular face time with team leaders and executives.

Proximity bias has lurked beneath the corporate surface for years, contributing to staff pressure to attend work when ill (also known as “presenteeism”) just so they can show as much “time at desk” as possible. 

If you’re planning to operate with semi-remote options, proximity bias needs to be front and center when building your hybrid work plan. To combat it and get ahead of it, you have to understand what it looks like.

What proximity bias in the workplace looks like

You may not want to hear it, but you could be guilty of proximity bias yourself. If you take a moment to reflect on your leadership, you might notice some favoritism for team members you see and interact with most often. 

But it’s more than just accidental favoritism. In fact, there are many different ways that proximity bias can present itself. 

Here are a few examples of how proximity bias could present in a hybrid office:

  • In-office employees get better perks: Let’s say your office provides childcare for those employees who work on-site each day. Is your remote team responsible for their own childcare? Do you offer stipends to ensure their childcare is taken care of as well?
  • Remote employees are forgotten or left off important meetings: Remote employees can often be an afterthought when scheduling meetings or asking for input.
  • Remote employees may get paid less: This could be due to a number of reasons. In-office employees might be chosen for raises and promotions more than their remote counterparts. Or salaries might be related to where each employee lives. Some companies (like Google) are cutting the pay of employees who switch to remote work based on their location.
  • In-office employees form closer bonds: Without a conscious plan, like organized remote lunches and team-building off-sites, colleagues who see each other regularly may be more likely to form closer bonds. A lack of forethought for including remote workers can leave WFH employees feeling disconnected. 
  • In-office employees make decisions without remote employees: When you don’t see remote team members as often (or ever), it becomes easier to accidentally leave them out of important decision-making discussions.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, it’s time to start revisiting your organization’s idea of remote employee inclusivity.

How proximity bias can harm company culture

You might be feeling our sense of urgency. We’re helping leaders become aware of proximity bias because it’s an obstacle that can harm your entire company culture—not just your remote team.

To put it plainly, we want you to care about proximity bias and put measures in place to combat it. Otherwise, you could end up with some major issues that can take a lot of time and resources to fix.

For starters, you can lose employee trust.

64% of employees say trust impacts their sense of belonging to an organization. And when two in five employees don’t believe companies put employee interests over profits, it shows leadership teams have a lot of work to do.

What employees say that directly impacts their trust

Also, when team members feel left out of important discussions and decisions, they can start to feel like they don’t have a voice in the company. 

Your remote team is especially at risk of feeling disconnected and lonely. While we hope that becoming aware of this is motivation enough, it’s worth knowing that these feelings can also affect the company’s bottom line. 

When employees feel lonely at work, they’re much more likely to have poor performance and productivity or even leave their job. 

Beyond that, you’re missing out on their valuable insights. You brought them on board for a reason, and when you discount that talent from collaborative discussions, it can cost the company good ideas and lead to higher staff churn rates.

One major issue with proximity bias is its ties to widening the gender equality gap. Before the pandemic, a study revealed that women were more negatively viewed and evaluated when they requested flexible work arrangements. 

With CHROs reporting that men are more eager to head back into the workplace than women, there’s potential for gender bias (and a widening wage gap) to become a real problem.

If your organization is focused on equality (and its huge global potential), gender issues compounded by proximity bias are something to keep front of mind.

How to combat proximity bias in your workplace

We believe the future of work is remote and any hybrid work should be remote-first (more on that later). But if your company must return to the office, a temporary hybrid work model may make sense.

To ensure you don’t allow proximity bias to encroach on your leadership style, we’ve got a few ways to help you fight it.

Become aware of the issue

The first step in combating proximity bias is (a) understanding that it’s a natural tendency and (b) putting in parameters to stop it.

If you’ve realized your company is guilty of proximity bias, don’t feel bad. Everyone with a brain is susceptible to cognitive biases. The way to get past it is to recognize it.

Consider any other bias, such as the anchoring effect, which makes us judge everything from the point of reference of the first piece of information we are given. For example, you might judge a software’s personal monthly subscription as “cheap” if the company has first listed its enterprise plan pricing.

To overcome this bias, you would pause to recognize it’s happening in the future and override it to make an objective judgment. It’s the same process with the proximity bias.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’ve been praising the design team often in meetings and that the design team is also in the office the same days as you. Maybe it’s even affected your team evaluations. This reflection will help you distribute praise more evenly in the next meeting (assuming it’s a necessary meeting, of course).

It’s also important to factor in your personal preferences when trying to spot areas where proximity bias may have presented.

Consider your personal preferences when it comes to where your team works. Do you prefer having a team in-office? This preference could be causing you to interact with your in-office and remote employees differently.

It might be time for you to confront your own opinions about how your teams work in order to ensure an equal employee experience regardless of where your team works.

However, this is only one piece of the puzzle. There are more actionable ways to combat proximity bias as well.

Encourage team bonding across all departments

It’s a fact: People in-office have the chance to stop for a chat and connect with co-workers that remote workers don’t get. When companies went remote due to the pandemic, many team members remained close with their office buddies and closed off communication with others they didn’t know as well.

In fact, researchers analyzing the data from over 60,000 Microsoft employees found that employees collaborated with “cross-group” colleagues around 25% less than they did before the work from home mandate.

This poses a problem when new remote team members are brought on, but past “cliques” and friendships have already been cemented.

The solution to this is to create an online space where employees can take a break for a casual conversation and build relationships with each other. 

For example, you can create a team project or coffee break Discussion group in Yac. 

You can also encourage colleagues to discuss what they’re working on and share ideas with teams they don’t often interact with. This helps generate unique insights, harnessing talent from all over the organization, and boosts chances for inter-team bonding.

Create a Yac discussion to talk about things not related to work

These opportunities for “bursty communication”, or bursts of conversation followed by periods of silence (rather than constant comms disruptions), act like virtual sync-ups. Instead of tying people to synchronous meetings, colleagues can grow relationships while keeping each other updated and gathering useful intel. 

When these communications happen via voice discussions instead of text-based messaging,  they’re able to empathize even more with the human on the other side.

Encouraging team bonding is a great way to improve employee engagement while also ensuring everyone is kept in the loop and has a solid foundation with others in the company.

Positions like “Director of Remote Work” are starting to emerge that can help put policies like this into place. Less formally, you can also designate someone to be a “Remote Officer” who will organize virtual events and act as an intermediary should remote employees begin to feel excluded.

Be purposeful about what you’re trying to achieve

Abolishing proximity bias is not about adding another item to HR’s list of things to check on. It’s also not about including remote workers in every single meeting. (The horror.)

Instead, it’s about knowing when it’s most productive to get them involved based on what you’re trying to accomplish.

When you have a small team in an office, it’s easy to get everyone together for an ad-hoc meeting to share your latest idea. But with a hybrid team that’s split between in-office and remote workers, ad-hocs can easily leave valuable team members out of the conversation.

To eliminate proximity bias, ad-hoc meetings cannot be the default method of brainstorming or sharing information in an office.

For this reason, you should ban the ad-hoc.

Good leaders have their hybrid plan carefully mapped out so that everyone knows when and why they need to come into the office. Fully remote employees should also understand exactly when and why their time is needed in a synchronous meeting.

This ensures that major discussions have an objective and are held at times when everyone can be involved.

Defaulting to asynchronous communication can remove the FOMO that remote workers have and ensure important details aren’t discussed without everyone being a part of the conversation.

A few more ways you can be more intentional with team communication include:

  • Keeping clear documentation of meetings, ideas, conversations, and more, and ensuring it’s accessible to everyone on the team
  • Holding async conversations in a tool like Yac that everyone can listen in their own time to get up to speed and feel included
  • Asking your team for their preferred method of communication about important discussions or team-wide meetings
  • Investing in the proper communication tools (going beyond video conferencing) that ensures everyone—whether remote or on-site—is able to communicate at their best time

Consider going fully remote

Our vote? Get rid of the office altogether, switch to remote work full-time, and redefine processes and communication as a whole.

Remote is the future of work, and it’s time to embrace it. If you need to ease in, consider creating a remote-first hybrid work environment. 

The remote-first model means that all employees work out of the office 100% of the time with a digital infrastructure that supports remote collaboration. The hybrid part comes in when in-person meetings are absolutely necessary. These meetings can be held in an office, a co-working space, a coffee shop, etc.

This work setup can be beneficial in a number of ways:

  • First, it reduces the inequity between on-site and remote teams. 
  • Second, it’s a great way to cut down on costs involved in running an office. 
  • Third, it provides flexible working options that encourage a healthy work-life balance.

Having a remote-first culture can level the playing field between team members, regardless of where they spend most of their workday.

Adopt an asynchronous communication culture

Invest in tools that are going to make communicating with remote people a breeze (beyond Slack and Zoom). Creating an asynchronous communication culture that works requires a shift in remote communication.

Yac is built for asynchronous communication.

Yac trumps email and other text-based messages because of its unique ability to capture tone and language nuances in async voice discussions. You can talk to your team like you would in the office, then save those discussions to refer back to later.

You can also share your screen to illustrate thoughts with video. You also allow yourself and your team members time to come up with a complete response, so you avoid the miscommunication and back-and-forths that come with on-the-spot, in-person conversations, and text-based messages.

Send voice replies with Yac.

Instead of ad-hoc gatherings in the office or formal virtual meetings once a week, keep discussions in relevant groups in your team’s Yac app. That way all team members can easily access and be a part of discussions.

Key takeaways

Flexibility is key to improving workforce happiness and reaching top talent, but it can come with its challenges.

Proximity bias is one of those challenges, but it’s not difficult to put a stop to it. By recognizing that it’s an issue, you’ve already won half the battle. From there, you can put policies in place that balance out your remote and on-site teams (or just go fully remote). 

Yac can also help bring your teams together. Book a demo today to learn more about how we can revolutionize your team’s communication.