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Proximity Bias: The Emerging Challenge For The Organizations

What began as an impromptu experiment amidst all the tumult of the past couple of years has turned out to be a huge success. During the 2019 lockdown, employees were compelled to work remotely, which surprisingly resulted in increased productivity and a better work-life balance. It’s now safe to say that hybrid work is here to stay. However, it also brings a new workforce concern that businesses must deal with: Proximity Bias.

So, what really is Proximity Bias?

It is the notion that employees who are geographically closer to their team and company leaders are at an advantage of having increased opportunity to physically interface at the right time and at the right place to showcase their capability and be perceived as better workers and, as a result, have a greater success rate in the workplace compared to those who work remotely. Importantly, this perception is more widely prevalent than believed. According to a survey conducted on more than 10,000 white-collar workers, 4 out of 10 executives ranked inequities between remote and in-office employees as their number one concern.

Therefore, the bottom line is clear, and the leaders would be required to act decisively to mitigate the harmful effects of conscious or unconscious proximity bias to avoid careers and operational goals being jeopardized.

What are the concerns and risks of proximity bias?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to haunt the global situation and is not likely to vanish anytime soon. As the workers are pushing back on the expectation of returning to the office full-time, and organizations are hesitant to commit to a totally remote model, proximity bias is likely to increase in real-life operations.

Against that backdrop, “How can corporate leaders ensure fair and equal treatment for all employees?” – Why? Because this element of proximity bias has now been added to the long list of prejudices that must be recognized and avoided for hybrid and virtual operations to succeed.

If not appropriately addressed, it can precipitate into a lot of undesired chaos and challenges in the workplace, such as:

1. Low Employee Retention:

In the wake of the pandemic, one out of every four employees plan to look for a new job. Remote workers are adamant and won’t budge as they have vicariously adopted the hybrid model. They’re ready to take the next opportunity that allows them to work from a more inclusive workplace.

2. Reduced Collaboration:

The more difficult it gets for remote employees to contribute and exchange ideas, the easier it becomes to exclude them from discussions. In this scenario, the expression “out of sight, out of mind” likely to appear as real, resulting in disrupted collaboration.

3. A Drop in Productivity and Involvement:

If remote employees do not feel like they are a part of the team or aren’t recognized for their efforts, their motivation level will suffer and the productivity loss for operations will be significant.

4. Slower responsiveness Rates:

Insufficient cross-functional communication between remote and on-site workers can lead to slower decision-making, delays in new product releases, and a general lack of innovation within the company.

Let’s discuss what are some of the solutions and how technology and leadership initiatives can help improve the Proximity Bias.

It’s well-understood that recognition of the root cause of any problem helps in bringing about a solution at the earliest. Here, the main issue that the organizations are facing is telecommuting. The implementation of appropriate technology into the HR workflow and other leadership-driven initiatives can holistically bridge the potential gap and make the situation better.

1. Measure the Efficiency based on Automated Software Results

  • Allow the work efficiency to get measured by the total percentage of work completed and the number of goals achieved with the help of automated data.
  • Get a data-driven analysis to reflect the performance standard and variations between local and remote workers
  • With data in place, the subjectivity, and the perceived bias for productivity variance between remote and local workers would easily get eliminated.

2. Schedule and Structure to Facilitate Inclusive experience in the Virtual Meetings

  • Ensure that the meeting platform and associated technology is well-available to all concerned including those of the remote participants like their onsite co-workers.
  • Configure the solution for all concerned including onsite participants to join from separate phones/computers to enable similar experiences.
  • Be sensitive to set meetings in accordance with the time zones of remote workers and design them in a way that there are shared responsibilities across all participants.

3. Conduct Virtual Skip-level Meetings Fortnightly

  • Schedule a skip-level meeting where the employees can directly reach out and converse with higher management levels without the interference of their managers.
  • It will help remote employees to directly share viewpoints and experiences with their superiors which they could have easily done if they were working from the office.
  • Skip-level meetings are a way to leverage the gathered information to be more strategic and accountable in your decision-making.

4. Introduce Enterprise Discussion Management (EDM) Platforms

  • Ensure that all employees are visible and heard which is another crucial step in reducing proximity bias.
  • Digitally scale-up meaningful conversations, discussions, files, emails, and links to collaborate across teams which is possible by incorporating EDM platforms.
  • The discussions can begin with questions asked by managers to gather information like, “What can be done to improve your work from home experience?”

5. Define and Encourage Appropriate Leadership Behavior

  • Act consistently and deliberately to inspire confidence, eliminating the perceived advantage of being face to face at the right place and at the right time
  • Maintain a note sheet to analyze the natural gravitation of interface with each member of the target audience, be it local or remote, to actively eliminate any possible inequality
  • Get HR to carryout periodical climate survey to understand the prevailing sentiment especially amongst remote workers
  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate to build a sense of community amongst all members (remote and locals) and capture viewpoints of all concerned without prejudice

Leaders are often unaware that they are favoring in-office personnel over remote workers. Employees who work from home are less likely to openly discuss their fear of proximity bias with their coworkers, and this anxiety might lead to burnout because of being separated from their peers and workplace culture. Although proximity bias cannot be completely eliminated, organizations can ensure that hybrid workplaces become engaging and accepting of settings for all employees by bringing it to light rather than pushing it under the rug.

Hybrid employment may provide new challenges for firms that have made it a mission to empower all employees and enable everyone to do their best work. However, those challenges can be mitigated by ensuring that all employees, regardless of the proximity, have a voice.

Consider incorporating these tools, techniques, and leadership initiatives for combating the barriers of proximity bias!

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