How Start-Up & Scale-Up Founders can Address Proximity Bias

As we begin to navigate a post-COVID world, with in-person and remote work, we are seeing an increase in issues relating to proximity bias.

by hao-nguyen on September 16, 2021

The global pandemic has had an immense impact on nearly every aspect of our lives, but arguably none more so than our work lives.

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Whether COVID-19 has caused you to lose your job, prompted you to change industries or simply helped you take stock of what it is you really want out of your career, there are few people who haven’t had to deal with change. And, most notably, unless you are an essential worker, at some point every one of us has had to come to terms with working remotely, whether that be in a part time or full-time capacity.  

While remote work definitely has its perks (such as no commuting and the ability to wear tracksuit pants to a meeting), it also presents a number of challenges. And as we begin to navigate a post-COVID world, one in which there is often a mix of in-person and remote work involved, we are seeing an increase in issues relating to proximity bias. 

Proximity bias is the idea that employees that are working in the same physical space as their managers and team will be seen as better or harder workers than colleagues who are working remotely, which ultimately leads to them being more successful at work.  

This imbalance can manifest in many ways including employees that work in the office being given more face time with executives in the business, and remote workers being left out of meetings or anecdotal discussions that happen in the kitchen, or being accidentally forgotten about on calls. But it can also lead to more obviously discriminatory practices, like in-person employees having access to better perks or even being paid more than remote workers.  

At the end of the day, you will never get rid of bias in the workplace entirely, as it is human nature. Even before COVID-19, proximity bias was revealed in other ways: for example, if you had a strong relationship with someone at work and would go to lunch with them or stop for a chat in the hallway every time you saw them, they are more likely to feel favourably towards you than a more withdrawn or shy co-worker who stays at their desk to eat.    

In my experience, proximity bias is also a much larger problem for employees in the US than in Australia or the UK, and this is often down to the fact that there is a far greater divide between executives and non-executives in American workplace culture — it’s more hierarchical by nature. 

So, while you cannot get rid of proximity bias entirely, you can put processes in place to help offset or limit it. Implementing policies such as encouraging in-office workers to join certain meetings via video from their desk (whether that be once a week or even monthly) to help ensure that managers are assessing people based on the quality of their input and results, and not just facetime.  

One factor to take into consideration is the size of your company, as that will make a massive difference. If you work for a small company, where senior executives are always in the office, it will be more challenging to level the playing field than if it’s a larger company where executives also partake in remote work sometimes. In these instances, perhaps suggesting that everyone (if possible) spends some time in the office and some time working remotely is the way to go. 

Ultimately, there is no single right answer and each company has to evolve into what works for them. While the recovery from COVID will probably include a few growing pains, I do believe that if you are a results-orientated company (as all good companies are!) rather than a facetime-driven company, the impact of proximity bias will be limited. 

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