Do you manage a dispersed team and wonder if your employees are at home watching Netflix instead of working on mission-critical projects? Are you working from home, grateful for the flexibility but still worry that your boss doesn’t appreciate how much you do? You’re not alone.
Research shows that remote employees log, on average, three weeks more time each year than their on-site colleagues. However, the common perception that they contribute less to the organization is “proximity bias.” Proximity bias is an erroneous belief held by some managers that employees working in proximity to them are more valuable and produce better work than their remote colleagues. Left unchecked, proximity bias could cost you some of your most valuable employees.
While the data shows that employees are often more productive when working from home, some significant challenges still exist. Performing their jobs without employer recognition has left some remote workers feeling invisible and unappreciated.
The truth is that employees can be busier than ever working from home. Many parents squeeze in work emails before their kids wake up and school starts. They’re juggling Zoom meetings throughout the day, taking breaks for the kids and dinner, and finally finishing their day with late-night work assignments. Some have called this a “Swiss cheese schedule.” While the 24/7 schedule may not be sustainable without carefully planning a work-life balance, flexibility has its benefits. Many people realize that not only CAN they work from home, but they prefer it. Remote workers can focus on projects when their energy is best suited to tackle the job. They can also fit in self-care more often while spending additional quality time with family, friends, and pets.
The world has changed in terms of how, when, and where people work. The transition has more people working from home than ever, and the studies show it will not change back. When they grabbed their laptops and ventured into a work style (already enjoyed by some digital nomads), knowledge-based workers didn’t realize that working from home could evolve into working from anywhere, forever.
Rather than working 9 to 5 with time tacked on either end for commuting, knowledge-based workers found creative ways to fit everything into their days (and nights). Although many of us enjoy working remotely, proximity bias is a preventable corruption that can destroy a workplace if left unchallenged.
People still work in offices
Many workplaces still invite their employees to the physical office at least 1 or 2 days a week. Remote team members often feel at a disadvantage to their on-site, co-located colleagues who are more visible to their manager. They worry that they will miss out on the best project assignments and opportunities for advancement. They fear that working remotely is valued less than their colleagues’ time spent in the office.
Out of sight, out of mind
The fear is that when you are “out of sight,” you are also “out of mind.” Companies that want to retain their top talent will need to change their management style to address employees’ evolving concerns. Not only will employees who prefer a flexible work style demand this arrangement in the long–term, but they will also recognize that some companies are adjusting to remote work more successfully than others. For the workplaces getting this right, profits reflect a successful operation while enjoying cost savings by reducing rent and overhead. Employees recognize this and expect their employers to implement policies and best practices that make the most of this work style for everyone.
Remote leaders worry too
On the other hand, remote team leaders have their fears about managing a dispersed team. They worry that people are less productive or not working much at all. They are concerned that their team will be focused more on their home life than their job, and the company will suffer. They may start to believe that their remote team members work less than 40 hours a week while collecting their same paycheck. These concerns exist in an office, but they are now a problem due to the real issue—proximity bias.
The solution to proximity bias
Managers who want to succeed in the new remote work environment must establish results-based metrics to evaluate employee contribution. Communicating clear goals and objectives will improve the team’s emotional health and focus attention where it matters most. Leaders of dispersed teams can’t rely on what they “see” but instead must shift their focus to assessing outcomes. All teams benefit from performance-based management since proximity bias surfaces even when everyone co-works in the same building.
Think about the best office environments. Do you envision a trusting culture or one that requires you to clock in and out whenever you grab a coffee? Proximity bias is not new. It is a looming threat for companies that fail to address this obstacle.
How to overcome proximity bias
The first step to overcoming any bias is awareness. Maybe you’d never heard of proximity bias or failed to consider if or how it affects your workplace. Reflect on how the location of where you and your team members work impacts your impressions.
Ask yourself questions such as:
- Do I prefer to work on-site or remotely because of how others perceive my value and contributions to the company?
- When selecting team members for a project assignment, do I choose the most qualified or the most convenient person?
- Are results measured by performance or visibility?
- Is working long hours applauded by management more than achieving outcomes aligned with its mission and goals?
Take time to contemplate your answers. If you recognize that you, your boss, or colleagues are biased towards working with people nearby, consider if that is the best mindset to achieve your own goals and fulfill your company’s mission.
Once you’re aware that you (or your boss) have a proximity bias, accept it. While conscious bias is what we associate with stereotypes and negativity, we also have an unconscious bias that keeps us safe and avoids being overwhelmed by the huge amounts of information our brain processes. “Our brains navigate 11,000,000 bits of information at any given moment, but our conscious brain can only process 50 bits of information per second. The distance between 50 and 11 million is where unconscious bias resides.” [percipiocompany.com] Accepting that you have a bias will allow you to take the next step—which is the most important to overcoming it–challenge it!
- Challenge it
Now that you know proximity bias is real, you should challenge it. It could be harming your company’s culture and potentially causing your team to underperform, exacerbating stress, and even leading top talent to seek greener pastures. Face your unsubstantiated beliefs. You can do this yourself with some dedicated meditation or journaling. It’s also helpful to gather a diverse group of people to analyze all possible perspectives.
Make sure someone argues why it’s best to work with nearby colleagues while someone else advocates for why remote talent may be superior. Consider how to determine who is best for a project or role without location being the primary criteria. It’s even helpful to assume a position that is contrary to your own during these discussions. Challenging your own beliefs helps you think critically about an opposing perspective and better understand the topic you’re questioning.
- Embrace change
Finally, be open to changing your mind and your actions. Once you’ve recognized that proximity bias exists at your workplace, and have accepted how this impacts you, your colleagues, and your company’s outcomes, you’re ready to challenge your mental shortcuts.
The bottom line
Overcoming proximity bias can have a huge impact (for the better) on you and your company. You may realize that some roles require access to the physical office to operate, while others can be just as successful from anywhere. You may find that some people are more productive off-site, and when they are assigned a prime project, they can lead their dispersed team to achieve results and surpass expectations. You may also recognize that shifting towards a goal-oriented, results-based management style motivates your dispersed team and builds trust at the same time.
In the end, dedicating time to recognize and overcome proximity bias and other biases improves your company’s culture and leads your team to stand out from the competition to attract top talent and grow your market. Have you recognized proximity bias at your job? How can you start to challenge it? Let us know in the comments!