Do you manage a dispersed team and wonder if your employees are home watching Netflix instead of working on mission-critical projects? Are you working from home, grateful for the flexibility but still worrying that your boss doesn’t appreciate how much you are working? You are not alone.
Research shows that remote employees log, on average, three weeks more time each year than their on-site colleagues. However, perceiving them as contributing less to the organization is due to “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 show that employees are often more productive when they work from home, there are some significant challenges that need to be addressed. Performing their jobs without employer recognition has left some remote workers feeling invisible and unappreciated.
The truth is, employees can be busier than ever working from home. Many parents squeeze in work emails before their kids wake up and schooling starts. Throughout the day, she is juggling zoom meetings, taking breaks for the kids and dinner, and finally finishes her 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, the flexibility has its benefits. Many people are realizing that not only CAN they work from home, but they actually 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 is not going to change back. The cat is out of the bag. What knowledge-based workers didn’t realize when they grabbed their laptops and ventured into a work style already enjoyed by some digital nomads is that working from home could actually 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).
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 the time spent 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”. Firms 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 long term, but they also recognize that some companies are adjusting to remote work more successfully than others. For the firms 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 start to believe that their remote team members are working less than the full 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 need to 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. In fact, 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 company’s who fail to address this obstacle.
How to overcome proximity bias
The first step to overcoming any bias is awareness. Maybe you had 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 firm?
- 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 fulfilling your firm’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 overwhelming 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 powerful to overcome it – Challenge it!
- Challenge It
Now you know that proximity bias is real. 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 you have accepted how this impacts you, your colleagues, and your firm’s outcomes, you’re ready to challenge your mental shortcuts. You can overcome them by doing what is best for your company and yourself, which often means changing your mindset and actions.
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. You may also find that dedicating time to recognize and overcome proximity bias and other biases improves your company’s culture and leads your team to stand out from your competition to attract top talent and grow your market.
Arootah offers workplace training and consulting services to help firms master leadership for remote work environments and can help your team recognize proximity bias and overcome the challenges that dispersed teams face. Start by taking our free online assessment to gauge if your workplace has effectively adapted to Remote Work.