What Is Proximity Bias? How Can Managers Prevent It?

Remote workers may miss out on career advancement opportunities simply because they remain ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to company leaders.

Written by Brooke Becher
What Is Proximity Bias? How Can Managers Prevent It?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Oct 11, 2023

Proximity bias happens when company leaders favor employees who are physically closer to them in the workplace. It’s influenced by an assumption that workers who show their faces are also more productive, or generally more dedicated to their role, simply because they’re present and visible in ways that off-site workers aren’t.

This instinctive tendency often comes at the expense of remote workers, many of whom get left out of decision-making processes, project assignments, promotions or other career advancement opportunities.

Proximity Bias Definition

Proximity bias is a workplace tendency where leaders give preferential treatment to in-office employees, at the expense of remote workers.

“We as humans are more comfortable with those who we see often, and therefore feel we know and trust them,” said Timothy Golden, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lally School of Management and remote work researcher.

“In an office place — even pre-pandemic and hybrid work — we often knew those who worked around us in the immediate vicinity of our desk more so than other coworkers who worked across the floor or in a different area,” Golden added. “This proximity caused us to interact with them more on a casual basis, observe them more frequently and generally feel more comfortable with them.”

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Examples of Proximity Bias

The subtlety of proximity bias makes it difficult to track. Below are a few examples of proximity bias to give organizations an idea of what to look out for.  

  1. A manager notices the efforts of an in-office employee more than their remote coworker, and gives the former better performance reviews and more exciting projects.
     
  2. A team leader schedules a meeting during a time convenient for in-office workers but inconvenient for remote workers in different time zones. 
     
  3. A company only offers in-person social activities without providing remote events for distant coworkers to connect. 
     
  4. In-office employees develop mentor-mentee relationships with managers through informal interactions, gaining more professional support than remote coworkers.   
     
  5. A leader asks in-office employees for feedback on business decisions or processes since they know them best, skipping over remote employees. 
     
  6. In-office employees enjoy catered lunches while remote employees don’t receive a food stipend.

 

Why Does Proximity Bias Matter?

Even though experimentsstudies and self-assessments report higher productivity among remote workers versus their in-office counterparts, the stigma surrounding off-site workers is still strong.

2021 report by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 67 percent of supervisors consider remote workers more easily replaceable than on-site workers. And 72 percent of supervisors also admitted a strong preference for fully in-person teams.

20,000-person study by Microsoft confirmed these attitudes in 2022. It found that 85 percent of company leaders lack confidence in the productivity of their at-home employees, with half struggling to trust in their out-of-sight employees to turn in their best work.

So while the reasons for proximity bias may be baseless, this workplace phenomenon still persists as workplaces continue to embrace hybrid work models. Unfortunately, these attitudes can alienate remote workers, divide teams and harm overall company culture.

But merging flexible work arrangements with traditional structures doesn’t have to be painful. There are steps you can take, starting with cycling out antiquated ideas for new best practices.

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How to Prevent Proximity Bias in the Workplace

If you’re struggling with how to lead a team that has some in-office workers and some remote workers, don’t worry. You’re not alone. We asked a handful of human resources experts to share advice and best practices for managing remote and hybrid teams.
  

1. Evaluate Performances Evenly and Fairly

When it comes to eradicating bias in the workplace, standardized performance reviews that follow a structured set of criteria can restore a level playing field for teams split in and out of office.

Leaning on objective tools, like data and protocols, can ensure fairer treatment and assessments, fostering a more balanced workplace, said Amy Spurling, an HR tech founder and CEO of perk management solution Compt.

“Proximity bias perpetuates inequity and is inherently ableist — not everyone can work in an office,” she said. “I always recommend having a policy in place early on and sticking to it to ensure equity and fair treatment across the team.”

 

2. Promote Remote Work and Flexibility

Baking a work-from-home mentality into a company’s culture can reduce the threat of proximity bias. That way, workers hired on as fully remote can stop in just to see the sights, or network with their colleagues, while the in-office employees are given the ability to mix things up and log-in from home.

Management may also want to consider the benefits of the work-from-home era, such as attracting top talent abroad that may have otherwise been impractical to hire.

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3. Establish Mentorship Programs

Remote work has its downsides, like isolation and the inability to passively pick up on-the-job tricks of the trade. These barriers simply mean that remote employees must make an intentional effort to connect and grow in their professional roles.

Leadership teams can make it easier for them by establishing mentorship programs. These programs can either assign partners or maintain a looser, open-door policy.

 

4. Take a Digital-First Approach

Amy Casciotti, the vice president of human resources at screen-capturing software company TechSmith, said that adopting an inclusive, digital-first approach as the default method of communication — regardless of an employee’s location — is crucial for team success.

That means when one person on the team is virtual, everyone should be following virtual communication protocols — even people who are in the office.

This approach “will help prevent people from feeling left in the dark when working from home,” Casciotti said.

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5. Cut Back on Meetings

While meetings are opportunities for teams to check in on work and each other. They can also become a vehicle of exclusion when they rely on synchronous communication from teams across different locations and time zones. Schedules and location can prevent full participation from everyone, with an employee’s absence fueling proximity bias. 

Meetings intended for status updates, project demos, data sharing or informal training can easily be communicated through asynchronous means like a recorded video, Casciotti said.

Instead, managers may want to try something Casciotti calls a “flipped meeting.” Prior to a scheduled meeting, a team lead records and shares a short video clip for employees to view on their own time. 

“This ensures every employee is given equal opportunity to fully understand information, brainstorm and share commentary in advance if they desire,” she said. “Additionally, this flipped structure makes meetings more inclusive. Instead of a few loud voices dominating the conversation, everyone gets the chance to share feedback.”

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6. Measure Output, Not Hours

Staying late and logging extra hours are clever illusions of productivity. But these theatrics have their setbacks.

“Focusing on hours worked as an indicator of performance can leave teams feeling pressured to be ‘always on’ when working from home to make up for their lack of physical presence,” Casciotti said. Nurturing this type of toxic work culture can also lead to other office hazards, such as burnout

Instead, managers should measure employee productivity with data-driven performance metrics, not just the time spent behind a desk. An employee doing more high-quality work in less time should be seen as a universally good thing.

 

7. Be Intentional 

To effectively manage a hybrid team, Casciotti said, corporate leaders must be intentional about how they connect with their direct reports. If not, they risk giving in-person employees preferential treatment.

“Be cognizant of how you engage with your in-person and virtual teams and identify the disparities,” she added. “You may realize you offer feedback more frequently when working in the office, and, if that’s the case, fully remote employees may miss out on opportunities to improve their work.”

One idea to combat this version of proximity bias is by incorporating virtual feedback forms, which may help level the playing field for fully remote employees.

 

8. Provide Equal Access to Career Advancement Opportunities

Inclusive work environments start with a culture of continuous learning and development at all levels. In order to prevent biases in the first place, leaders should receive training on managing diverse and dispersed workforces from the jump.

This responsibility extends beyond first-time managers — including those who entered the workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic — as well as individuals who may still cling to outdated mindsets, Ciara Harrington, chief people officer at learning management system software company Skillsoft, told Built In. 

“As workforces continue to be distributed, one model of work can’t benefit over another just because they’re in eyeshot of your desk,” she said. “Moving forward, it will be important to ensure equal access to opportunities, such as professional development, for all employees.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Establishing standardized performance reviews, embracing a work-from-home mentality and prioritizing digital forms of communication are a few ways to help get rid of proximity bias.

An example of proximity bias in the workplace is managers giving in-office employees higher performance reviews than remote workers because they view the physical act of coming into the office as the only sign of hard work.

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