hybrid workplace with both in-person and remote employees.
Image: Adobe

Much of the remote working debate has been focused on productivity levels, innovation, and collaboration. However, there’s another growing concern around proximity bias. Put simply, proximity bias is the concern that someone will gain an advantage (or disadvantage) based on their physical proximity to their boss and other leadership.

Like many biases, proximity bias is an offshoot of our evolutionary “programming” that helped humanity advance through the eons. Providing preferential treatment to those in your immediate vicinity helped foster the tribal relationships that largely benefited our survival in a pre-industrial world. We’re naturally wired to think more highly of those we regularly interact with.

The challenges of this natural preference for favoring those we’re physically proximate with are not new. Anyone working in a remote physical office has probably experienced an “HQ bias,” where the folks at headquarters seem to advance faster or get better opportunities than those in a remote or regional office. This problem becomes exacerbated in a hybrid work environment.

The dangers of proximity bias in a hybrid world

Most executives seem to innately understand the risks of proximity bias. Even without a fancy label for the phenomenon, many have responded with policies from mandatory return-to-work rules to adding formal measurements to employee evaluations to monitor potential proximity bias.

The most significant benefit to tech leaders of a hybrid working environment, being able to source talent from around the world, also creates a risk for proximity bias. It’s fine for a New York City bank to mandate “in-office days” when all its workers live within a 50-mile radius. However, that’s much more challenging if your headquarters is in Sacramento, your new .NET developer is in St. Louis, and your crack DBA is in Santiago.

While interest in mitigating proximity bias is relatively new and no silver bullet solutions exist, most recommendations for identifying and mitigating proximity bias fall into three categories.

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1. Focus on outcomes, not face time

The first mitigation is ensuring that you evaluate your team members consistently based on their outcomes instead how much time you spend in the same physical space. This becomes particularly important if you have a mix of in-office and remote workers on your team. Your natural tendency as a human being is to think more highly of the person you see every day, with whom you might share meals and family stories, versus the face on the screen that gets far less time interacting with you.

Periodically set outcome targets or deliverables for each team member on at least a monthly basis. Ask each individual to report how they’ve done completing those deliverables, and then spend time together reviewing their outputs and their assessment of those outputs. You might be surprised to find that someone whom you regard as highly effective that you see every day isn’t producing the same quality work as a remote colleague with whom you feel little personal connection.

2. Create in-person interactions

Another technique to avoid proximity bias is to thoughtfully create in-person interactions. These can range from building in-person time going to a remote office, getting coffee while in the same area for client visits or to hosting weekly “lunch hours” where remote employees can join you in the office for a meal. For widely dispersed workforces, you can arrange annual meetups or piggyback on conventions and training events where many team members are present.

There’s a cost associated with getting people together in person, especially for widely dispersed teams. You’ll likely be asked to justify the expense. You can reference the cost savings of not needing office space for your team or the cost of hiring and attrition associated with employees who don’t feel engaged with their teams or company, a common phenomenon among hybrid workers.

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: Why women are leaving their jobs and how to get them back to work (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

3. Measure and monitor

Just as interest in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) drove enhanced measuring of career advancement based on DEI metrics, so too are many companies measuring advancement rates of workers based on their working arrangement. You may have already built technical tools for measuring when employees are in a physical office or can quickly gather this information and associate it with their career advancement.

Rather than immediately using these metrics to punish, look to identify teams or business units that effectively mitigate proximity bias. Then see if there are lessons that can be extended more broadly within the organization.

Your attention to bias shows leadership

While proximity bias can feel like yet another complex topic that tech leaders need to worry about, being aware of this very human behavior, and attempting to understand, monitor, and mitigate it will help your hybrid teams be more effective and engaged while making you a better leader.

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