Proximity Bias Fears Plague the Hyrbid Workforce: Here’s What Leaders Can Do

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As the demand for flexible workplaces grows, so does anxiety about proximity bias — the idea that people who work onsite and have in-person interactions will receive preferential treatment over remote colleagues. Remote workers are concerned they might be passed up for promotions or miss out on opportunities to form relationships — and those concerns are worth addressing.

Proximity bias existed before the pandemic, and as a 2019article on the topic noted, it negatively affects workplace culture. If remote employees feel they’re not receiving equal consideration for promotions or don’t feel integrated into the company culture, it can breed resentment or disconnect.

Poor employee performance, negative workplace culture, and high turnover rates all threaten organizations that don’t get a handle on proximity bias. With hybrid workplaces becoming a go-to option for the post-pandemic future of work, it’s important that HR leaders and managers proactively implement strategies to prevent proximity bias from permeating their organization.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

HR leaders developed techniques at the height of the pandemic to keep employees engaged and connected, and they can adapt similar approaches to connect coworkers in a hybrid workplace. But, as is true for every issue, the first step in addressing the problem is recognizing that it exists.

Like any other workplace bias, proximity bias should be acknowledged and addressed before it becomes rampant. Leadership should acknowledge proximity bias is a potential issue in hybrid workforces and assure employees that they are implementing policies and practices to prevent it, including analyzing employee-related data to ensure that all employees are treated equally.

Beyond a company-wide announcement, people leaders should use periodic check-ins with employees to assess how connected they feel and get feedback on their remote work experience. Inviting the conversation and personalizing the approach for each employee can lead to honest feedback from those hesitant to raise concerns otherwise. This candid feedback ensures that remote employees feel they receive fair, equitable, and inclusive treatment.

Acknowledging proximity bias and communicating the steps the organization is taking to address it fosters trust and accountability. This environment will encourage remote employees to feel more comfortable coming forward with their concerns.

Going Beyond Verbal Commitments

Next, it’s time to implement tangible programs and strategies that build camaraderie between in-person and remote workers. Holding social events like trivia nights or virtual learning opportunities can allow staff to develop social relationships and connections. Be sure to collect feedback on what activities foster connection for your company – many are burnt out on virtual happy hours! What’s most important is finding ways for company leaders to connect with every employee, even those who rarely go into the office.

It’s not just about camaraderie, though. Find tangible processes that need tweaking to accommodate hybrid work – and fix them publicly. For example, meetings have increased in this environment, and balancing in-person and remote employees on calls can be a complicated dance. Remote people can become frustrated when colleagues are all together in a room during meetings. It isn’t easy to follow the conversation and can impact performance when they miss important details. They may feel left out by the connection happening without them.

Simple “rules of engagement” that intentionally address hybrid meetings will go a long way to ensure that people contribute in meetings – no matter where they are. You can encourage all parties to join on video even if they are together in person or ensure there is a designated note-taker getting important details in writing. Encourage everyone to hold each other accountable to new rules and processes.

It Starts and Stops With People Leaders

65% of leaders say that managing issues remotely is more challenging, citing a lack of in-person or face-to-face interaction as particularly difficult. Leadership must address this concern directly by starting a conversation with managers since they play a crucial role in creating an inclusive culture.

While organizations should already be training their people leaders to prevent and handle bias of all forms, they should update those programs to encompass proximity bias training. Managers can also offer weekly “drop-in” hours for their direct reports, creating a space for employees to have the “water-cooler” chats they enjoyed in pre-hybrid-times.

Managers should ask questions that keep employees engaged and build trust. Take time to proactively check how remote team members balance their work with their personal lives. Emotional intelligence and listening skills have become even more imperative for people leaders.

Leveraging Data and Tech to Spot Bias

Leadership can leverage the same tools used to monitor other types of workplace bias to keep tabs on this issue. Employee relations data such as staff engagement levels, monthly or quarterly pulse surveys, and employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) ratings can provide valuable insights. If it becomes apparent that onsite employees are being promoted at a higher rate than remote workers, leadership must re-examine their promotion criteria to effect change moving forward.

Blending HR and employee relations data with business information provides a big-picture view for addressing proximity bias. For example, we know performance declines when employees are disengaged. Are you seeing remote employee performance outliers across certain regions, specific management groups, etc.? Proactively identifying disparities through data and technology helps address them before they snowball.

The bottom line is that everyone has a responsibility to address proximity bias. Company leaders must make it clear they take equity seriously and work with HR to build programs to prevent bias and create an inclusive culture. HR has a responsibility to empower managers by training them to recognize bias and document employee concerns. And employees should be encouraged to speak up if they feel left out. When everyone contributes in these ways, organizations can eliminate proximity bias and embrace the new normal in the workplace.

 

Rebecca Trotsky is the VP of Talent & Employee Relations Strategy at HR Acuity.

 

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By Rebecca Trotsky