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4 Ways to Avoid Proximity Bias in a Hybrid Workplace

Managing A Team

As we emerge from the pandemic, many Hawaii employers have continued to embrace a hybrid workplace to boost employee satisfaction. While most have ironed out the logistical details related to its implementation, employees still see one major glitch with the system – proximity bias, or the tendency for management to give preferential treatment to people in their immediate vicinity. 

Proximity bias isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been studied by academics long before the pandemic. In a traditional work environment, proximity bias can occur in large companies with multiple locations. For example, companies with Oahu headquarters and neighbor island teams may be at risk of proximity bias, especially if management is concentrated on one island.  In a hybrid work environment, proximity bias can be described as inequality between onsite and remote employees that (for the most part) favors onsite employees – often subconsciously. 

What does proximity bias look like?

Proximity bias may show up in behaviors like excluding remote employees from desirable projects or giving onsite employees higher performance evaluations and faster promotions irrationally. It can also look like providing in-office workers with more benefits or information that makes it easier to succeed in their job. 

What are the effects of proximity bias?

Proximity bias can wreak havoc on your company culture. Perceived favoritism toward a group of employees can damage morale and undermine an organization’s efforts to retain top talent. If managers continuously promote suboptimal employees under the influence of proximity bias, the organization will suffer long-term consequences and fail to reach its full potential. In addition, fully remote employees or employees who aren’t in the office as often may lack a sense of belonging within the company, which in turn can affect performance.

Steps to avoid or address proximity bias:

#1. Train managers to spot proximity bias. Develop a short training to help managers understand proximity bias and its risks to a healthy workplace. Recognizing that proximity bias can exist is the first step to preventing or fixing it.

#2. Offer employees a track to promotion using objective criteria for evaluations. Creating and communicating an employee reward system will ensure the organization promotes people based on merit or outcomes instead of how much facetime employees have with management.

#3. Create transparent workflows so that everyone has equitable access to information. That may mean storing files in a shared cloud environment or using a work management platform to ensure all employees have access to the same information related to a project.  

#4. Meet regularly to minimize the effects of proximity bias. Whether through a daily team huddle or weekly all-staff meeting, increasing face time with remote employees can mitigate the impact of proximity bias. 

We make poor decisions when we rely on mental shortcuts or biases rather than knowledge or data. These decisions can wreak havoc on company culture and the overall health of your organization. Don’t leave proximity bias unchecked. Continuously work to avoid and address biases to increase equity in your hybrid workplace and ensure all employees feel valued. 

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