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Culture & Employee Engagement

What is Proximity Bias? Definition, Impact, and Examples

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Imagine a workplace where favoritism wears a cloak of convenience, preferring those within arm’s reach. That’s proximity bias for you: a sneaky inclination to prefer the people who are physically close to us, especially in the workplace. Although it shouldn’t be the case, some managers have a soft spot for the employees they see in the office. This preferential treatment can leave remote employees on the sidelines, battling for visibility in unequal workplace dynamics.

Proximity bias is a peculiar blend of assumptions and inadvertent partiality that often unfolds in hybrid work environments without anyone realizing it. Let’s talk about proximity bias, why it happens, and the impact it has on the hybrid workplace.

Proximity Bias Explained

What is proximity bias? It's one of the more common cognitive biases that affect us in the workplace. Essentially, it's the tendency to prefer team members who work in close physical proximity to us. As the hybrid work model becomes more and more common, so — unfortunately — does proximity bias.

Why Do Managers Show a Preference for Office Workers?

Managers of hybrid teams often show favoritism toward in-office employees over members of their remote teams due to a mixture of ingrained assumptions, mental shortcuts, and unintentional biases. Let’s break this down:

  1. Visibility bias: Out of sight, out of mind — it’s a common pitfall. Managers tend to interact more with in-office colleagues because they see them daily. This frequent interaction often translates to what the manager might think is a better understanding of these employees’ contributions, which can lead to a perceived preference.

  2. Assumption of productivity: There’s a lingering assumption that being physically present equates to being more productive. Managers might associate the office environment with higher efficiency and employee engagement, leading them to favor those working in that setting.

  3. Communication ease: Spontaneous discussions, impromptu meetings, and hallway conversations happen organically in an office setting. Managers might find it easier to communicate and collaborate with those who are physically present, inadvertently leaving remote workers out of crucial conversations and decision-making processes.

  4. Trust and control: Some managers feel more in control when they can physically see their employees at work. There might be an underlying trust issue or a perception that remote workers are less accountable, which can lead to a preference for office-based staff.

It’s important to note that proximity bias typically isn’t intentional or malicious. It often stems from traditional work norms and habits rather than deliberate discrimination against remote workers. Understanding these biases is crucial to creating a fairer and more inclusive work environment.

What Are Some Examples of Proximity Bias Today?

Here are a few examples that highlight how proximity bias can seep into various aspects of the workplace, affecting opportunities, recognition, and day-to-day life for both in-office and remote workers:

  • Meeting dynamics: In-office employees might enjoy more participation and influence in team meetings simply because they’re physically present. Their voices tend to carry more weight, while remote workers might struggle to be heard or have their ideas acknowledged.

  • Performance reviews: Managers may unintentionally give higher ratings or recognition to employees with whom they regularly share office space, overlooking the contributions of remote workers who might not have as much face time.

  • Opportunities for development: Office-based staff members might be more readily exposed to informal learning, mentorship, or networking opportunities because of their proximity to senior management or influential colleagues. Remote workers might miss out on these chances for career growth.

  • Decision-making: Informal, on-the-fly discussions in the office can lead to exclusive decision-making. Remote workers who aren't part of these spontaneous conversations might find themselves out of the loop regarding important decisions affecting their work.

  • Social connections and networking: Being physically present in the office often facilitates social connections and networking opportunities. This can inadvertently lead to closer relationships between in-office colleagues.

  • Assigning tasks and projects: Managers might assign critical projects or high-profile tasks to the employees they interact with most, unintentionally leaving out equally capable remote workers who don’t benefit from the same level of face-to-face interaction.

4 Ways Proximity Bias Impacts the Hybrid Workplace

Proximity bias in the hybrid workplace can have a serious negative impact. Here’s how it throws a wrench into the works.

1. Decreases Engagement From Remote Workers

Imagine being the remote worker in a game of "Spot the MVP." Proximity bias tends to favor those who are physically present, leaving remote workers feeling like they're stuck in the nosebleed seats. They miss out on high-fives for their wins, feel left out of the office buzz, and struggle to get their hard work noticed. That disconnect can seriously deflate employees' morale, productivity, and job satisfaction.

2. Negatively Impacts Workplace Diversity

Proximity bias can be a real diversity dampener. Some employees may opt for remote work to avoid an office that might not feel so inclusive. People with disabilities or people of color might prefer the safety of their own space to avoid facing biases or microaggressions in the office. Unfortunately, this escape from bias means fewer diverse voices in the room where the decisions are made, which isn't great for innovation and inclusivity.

3. Fosters an Unhealthy Company Culture

Picture this: the office clique that's tighter than your favorite jeans. Proximity bias can easily lead to in-office colleagues forming exclusive groups, getting preferential treatment, and unknowingly leaving remote workers out in the cold. That sort of favoritism breeds an unhealthy vibe, trust issues, and an "us vs. them" mentality that nobody needs.

4. Leads to the Inaccurate Judgment of Employees' Career Growth

Here’s where that "out of sight, out of mind" curse rears its head. Thanks to proximity bias, managers might unknowingly favor the folks they bump into at the watercooler when it's time for promotions or juicy projects. Meanwhile, despite their stellar performance, the remote warriors might get passed over for well-deserved career advancement opportunities simply because they're not in the office spotlight.

How Inclusive Workplaces Are the Key to Business Success

Inclusivity in the workplace isn’t just a trend; it’s the secret sauce for business success. When everyone feels valued and heard, it's like hitting the productivity jackpot, boosting the company culture, employee engagement, and job satisfaction. A workplace where everyone's opinions are heard and respected is a breeding ground for great ideas. People feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and bringing their whole selves to work. That sort of vibe is a productivity gold mine.

Overcommunication should be the hero when you're aiming to include everyone. You want to overshoot the communication mark in a hybrid setup rather than fall short. It's like using a GPS: It's better to get too many instructions than miss a turn and end up lost, right?

Inclusive workplaces are the powerhouses of productivity and innovation. When everyone’s involved, and communication is on point, your business game gets a serious upgrade!

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