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Proximity bias: how it impacts hybrid work and what to do about it

Originally published on Mar 21, 2022
Last updated on Apr 27, 2023
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While the workplace may seem very different compared to the days before COVID due to the transition to hybrid work, it doesn’t mean age-old challenges such as promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion no longer exist. Keep reading to find out how the hybrid workplace model can exacerbate DEI challenges thanks to proximity bias and learn what you can do to help.

Proximity Bias in the Hybrid Workplace Model

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that has emerged out of the hybrid workplace is proximity bias — that is, the tendency for employees who work in the office to receive more favorable treatment and more opportunities for career advancement.

According to an article for the Harvard Business Review, not only does proximity bias discriminate against employees who feel that time out of the office increases productivity and helps them contribute more meaningfully, but it can also impact people of color: “For example, if employees of color report a greater sense of wellbeing when they spend more time out of the office and safe from microaggressions, you might start to see situations where employees of color sacrifice promotions in favor of personal wellbeing by working remotely.”

Additionally, proximity bias in the hybrid workplace may also exclude women from opportunities for promotion and higher pay. During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, childcare and family responsibilities largely fell on women, and in the post-pandemic age where COVID-19 variants are still a concern, women may be more likely to opt for more remote time when given the choice. Disabled employees who are more comfortable at home may opt for more remote work days as well, resulting in less face time with their managers.

Proximity bias may also be compounded with other hybrid workplace challenges. For instance, employees are reporting greater incidences of burnout. This can be the result of working longer hours or feeling more pressure to demonstrate their contributions so as not to be overshadowed by their in-office counterparts.

The Role of Hybrid Workplace Managers in Prioritizing DEI Efforts

For hybrid workplace managers, the first step to combatting proximity bias is to be aware of it. Make it a point to measure the performance of your team members using clearly established KPIs. Distribute opportunities for visibility — such as giving a presentation in front of company leaders — equally to both remote and in-office employees. Make sure all meetings are inclusive of both on-site and remote team members. And adhere to the new hybrid schedule yourself by taking all your permitted remote days to set an example for your team.

Solving DEI Challenges for a More Inclusive Future

By granting people of all colors and backgrounds access to the same jobs regardless of their geographic location and ability to work in an office, hybrid and remote work have the potential to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. By examining how old power structures and unconscious biases may persist in the new hybrid workplace model, hybrid managers can take a proactive role in solving the DEI challenges of the new environment. 

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Proximity bias: how it impacts hybrid work and what to do about it


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