Companies are facing a dilemma in the aftermath of the pandemic.
After trying out remote work unexpectedly, many are choosing to either revert back to normal, or try a combination of both styles.
In-office: Companies like Tesla, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan are pushing for their staff to return to the office 9 – 5 as usual. Workers hate it, it drives up costs (real estate), it’s arguably worse for the environment, and it leads to higher staff turnover. In fact, an estimated 40% of American employees may quit their jobs if they are required to stop working remotely.
Remote: Others, like Twitter, Brex, and Gitlab have switched to working remotely full-time while companies like Buffer and Automattic have actually worked remotely since pre-pandemic days.
There’s no doubt that employees love working remotely, and according to this survey by Mercer, 94% of companies report that their productivity either increased (27%) or at least didn’t drop (67%) when they tried a fully remote, or remote-first setup.
While working remotely might be the future of work, it can tamper with employees’ work-life balance, and get them rushing out of bed at odd hours for Zoom meetings with peers in other time zones, as well as create emotional and psychological stress.
Hybrid: The hybrid work model is the middle way, and there are many ways to slice it. We have brands like Microsoft, Google, Meta, and Twitter that have switched to this working model where employees split their time between a physical office and working remotely.
Hybrid work balances the gains of going remote and working face-to-face but may contribute to the already-problematic workplace issue of proximity bias.
What is proximity bias?
Proximity bias is the idea that office workers will be perceived as more productive, creative, committed, and loyal to a company’s vision, their team, and the leadership, and will consequently have more opportunities to advance in their career.
Proximity bias also manifests itself in more privileges offered to onsite employees, such as catered lunches, more 1:1 feedback sessions, more favorable performance reviews, raises, bonuses, etc.
Human psychology is wired to build kinship with those closest to us — it’s the halo effect, a cognitive bias where one or more of an individual’s positive qualities skews our perception of them as a whole.
In this case, workers who check into an office (or more often) create an appearance of being more committed to the company, mindful, and willing to sacrifice: proximity highlights the strengths of workers in the immediate vicinity so that they get preferential treatment over their remote counterparts.
Proximity bias also tends to get leadership to diminish the weaknesses of their office workers while doing the reverse for remote workers.
How does proximity bias manifest itself in the hybrid workplace?
There are many ways proximity bias promotes favoritism and preferential treatment towards office workers, at the expense of remote employees, such as:
Exclusive benefits and perks
This includes catered lunches, child care assistance, fitness and wellness memberships, etc., which may be made available to office workers while little thought is given to remote employees.
Performance evaluations & promotions
Remote employees may get fewer check-ins & follow-ups than their office-based counterparts.
That asymmetry creates conditions where in-office employees have more opportunities to impress leadership and advance up the career ladder faster.
A 2015 Stanford Graduate School of Business study reveals that remote workers are less likely to be promoted, even though they’re on average 15% more productive than office workers.
On the other hand, 37.8% of employees who quit their jobs do so to pursue better career prospects.
If you put those two situations together like it often happens in hybrid workplaces, the conditions are ripe for a perfect storm: leadership in hybrid companies are more reluctant to recognize remote workers, who in turn are willing to quit if they’re not compensated fairly.
Raises & bonuses
Promotions are the easiest way to get a bump in pay. The second way up is to handle high-stakes projects that have more visibility & impact more departments.
Both determiners tend to be biased against remote workers.
Office workers are closer to the action and can volunteer (or even be assigned) more readily to tackle high-impact projects (with the required resources provided, few questions asked) that will get them more raises and bonuses. Remote workers, not so much.
Lately, we’ve also seen companies of all sizes threaten to cut remote worker salaries, reasoning that not commuting offers them advantages that should be curtailed with a cut in pay.
A few months into the pandemic, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will reduce the salaries of workers who intend to move to cheaper locations. Google & Twitter have also stated that remote workers who leave San Francisco will have their paychecks reduced — up to 25% in Google’s case.
44% of remote workers may be willing to take a 10% cut in pay (according to this poll) to work from home permanently, but a 25% cut or higher might just be pushing it.
Faster information flow and easier access to resources
There’s only so much you can discuss via Slack or video conferencing.
In-office employees often encounter less friction with engaging their peers and superiors, getting their perspective on projects and assignments, requisitioning company resources, and cutting through bureaucratic red tape.
Overwork & burnout
It’s no longer news that remote work promotes burnout.
Remote workers don’t want to be seen to be letting the team down so they put in extra hours, especially since they have to try and measure up to their office-based coworkers who leadership believes are working harder anyway.
69% of remote workers surveyed during the pandemic said they were burnt out.
To get a better idea of how remote work affected that figure, we looked back to figures from 2019 and saw that it was significantly lower, or 23% — according to Forbes.
So, in just a year, burnout and stress jumped 200%, thanks to the need for remote workers to go the extra mile to prove their worth.
Office-based employees are perceived as more hardworking and productive; to catch up and get a level playing field, remote workers are working more hours on bigger and harder projects and it’s burning them out.
How to tackle proximity bias in a hybrid workplace
Proximity bias may develop subconsciously or without any prior thought. It just happens. But you need to work out a strategy for tackling it and giving your remote workers a level playing field with those based onsite.
Make your hybrid strategy remote-first
Research shows that coming into the office just one or two days per week is the sweet spot. So then, make it the default so that employees, managers, and even C Suite staff can’t use their office presence as an unfair advantage.
In extreme cases, you might consider capping the number of days employees can check into the office.
Have leadership set an example
For instance, while announcing Quora’s switch to a remote-first model, CEO Adam D’Angelo stated he wouldn’t spend more than a day in the office every month, and that leadership teams wouldn’t be located onsite.
As a result, Quora would only maintain its Mountain View office as a coworking space for employees who choose to work onsite.
Company leaders making such a bold statement can remove the pressure to check in and give remote workers subtle cues that they can work out-of-office without hurting their career prospects.
Engage your workforce in the decision-making process
This includes 1:1 conversations, surveys, and workshops where you can engage your hybrid teams to figure out any subtle ways they’ve experienced unconscious bias, such as in their workloads, compensation, etc., as well as brainstorming to figure out ways around it.
Proximity bias is a people ops problem — you can only solve it by working hand in hand with those affected.
Keep an eye out for inequity – maybe, even proactively measure it
There are several ways proximity bias can crop up. Measuring for it will help you see patterns that those affected (i.e. remote workers) may not be willing to open up about.
For instance, you can:
- Measure your team’s workload
- Look at how often your remote workers are getting promoted compared to their peers
- Regularly survey your workforce to gauge satisfaction between remote workers and their office-based peers, etc.
Equip hybrid workers and teams to succeed out of the office
Your hybrid workforce will still feel the need to check into the office if they don’t have equal access to the same tools, apps, and opportunities as their peers, or if your company culture still gravitates towards the office.
Favoritism can take many forms and even subtle moves such as making team-building activities to be primarily face-to-face can make employees feel underprivileged.
Companies stand to gain by facing up to the issue of proximity bias
Among others, an equitable hybrid work environment will help you hire the best talent from across the world.
In addition, your employees will be more engaged, motivated, and energized in a dynamic workplace where they can work from wherever they want without having to defend their lifestyle choices from passive aggression, hurting their career choices, or getting sidelined for promotions.