How to recognise and solve proximity bias in a remote and hybrid workplace
A January 2022 Slack survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that the top concern for executives about hybrid and remote work is “proximity bias.” Namely, 41% feel worried about the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality between office-centric, hybrid and fully remote employees.
The difference in time spent in the office leads to concerns ranging from decreased career mobility for those who spend less facetime with their supervisor to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work. Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage in the future of work need to use research-based best practices by creating a culture of “Excellence From Anywhere” to address these concerns.
Why have leaders failed to adapt to the flexible future of work?
Surveys show that two-thirds of large employers intend to have a mainly hybrid schedule after the pandemic ends for non-frontline employees, with some fully remote and some office-centric. Employee surveys showing that two-thirds to three-quarters of all workers who can work at least some time remotely want a very flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule permanently.
There’s an important retention issue involved in providing employees with their desired level of flexibility, especially in the context of the Great Resignation. The aforementioned Slack survey indicates that of those knowledge workers not satisfied with the flexibility at their workplace, 72% are likely to look for a new job in the next year. That’s an especially important issue from the perspective of diversity. While 75% of white knowledge workers want a hybrid or fully remote schedule, 86% of Hispanic/Latin and 81% of Asian/Asian-American and Black knowledge workers want such flexibility.
So why haven’t leaders addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences of time spent in the office. Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose. You might have heard of black swans, the hard-to-predict, low-probability, high-impact threats like the pandemic. Well, the opposite kind of threats are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blindspots.
The scientific name for these blindspots is cognitive biases. These dangerous judgment errors result in poor strategic and financial decisions. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut instead of relying on best practices. One of these biases is called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of appropriate practices, we tend to disregard other more appropriate alternatives.
Trying to transpose existing ways of collaboration in “office culture” to remote work is a prime example of functional fixedness. That’s why leaders fail to address strategically the problems arising with the shift to a hybrid-centric culture of work. They thought their pre-existing ways of management would be more than enough for the new world. Unfortunately for them, the context changed, and they ended up like fish out of water.
Another cognitive bias, related to functional fixedness, is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It’s a leader’s antipathy towards adopting practices not invented within their organization, no matter how useful. No wonder that leaders fail to look externally for techniques to address proximity-bias related issues. Instead, they try to come up with their own strategies and often work very hard and spend way too many resources to reinvent the wheel. If they’re lucky, it’s round, but too often, it’s a square wheel.
Defeating these cognitive biases requires the use of research-based best practices battle-tested in pioneering companies. To do so successfully requires creating a new work culture well-suited for the hybrid and remote future of work.]
Protect from proximity bias via the ‘excellence from anywhere’ strategy
Many organizations may need some employees to come in full-time. For example, one of my clients is a high-tech manufacturing company with more than 25,000 employees. Many of them are needed on the factory floor. Others may need to come in on a hybrid schedule even if they worked full-time remotely during the pandemic. A case in point: Some research and development staff are able to innovate better if they can access equipment in the company’s labs. Some others may have team leaders who want them to come in one day a week to facilitate team cohesion and collaboration, even if they can do all their work fully remotely. And still other employees have team leaders who permit them to do full-time remote work.
Such differences over flexibility have the potential to create tension between employees. Addressing these potential cultural divides is vital to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have-nots” from developing, as well as pre-empting career-limiting facetime differences with supervisors. Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” as we did at this company. This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee’s work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible.
Address resentments and career limitations due to proximity bias
The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation. By valuing deliverables, collaboration and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes; the location doesn’t matter. This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.
But what about facetime with the boss? To address this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes, large-scale quarterly or even annual performance evaluations to much more frequent weekly or biweekly, low-stakes, brief performance evaluation one-on-one check-ins. Supervisees agree on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals with their supervisor. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report to their boss under a page of how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation and proposed goals for next week. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.
At the one-on-one, the supervisor coaches the supervisee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the goals for next time and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation.
This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting mitigates concerns about facetime, since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses the underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss. Knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee morale, engagement, and retention, so important in this time of the Great Resignation.
The transition to a hybrid and remote work culture in the post-pandemic recovery leads to the threat of resentment over flexibility and worries over career standing due to facetime with the boss. Addressing such concerns requires creating a work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This reframes the conversation to help everyone focus on pulling together to achieve shared business objectives and prioritizing deliverables rather than where and how you work through research-based best practices. It also involves transitioning from traditional quarterly or annual performance evaluations to weekly or biweekly brief one-on-ones, giving all employees personalized facetime with the boss and a constant knowledge of where they stand at all times, alleviating career mobility concerns.