Proximity Bias In The Age Of Remote Work| ItSoftNews

In a 2022 study by Alliance Virtual Offices, remote workers have poorer performance reviews, are 38% less likely to receive bonuses, don’t advance as quickly, and do 50% more overtime compared with in-person workers. Is proximity bias to blame? Proximity bias is exactly as it sounds: a bias managers and leaders have toward employees who are most visible to them (i.e., in the office, close to their desks). In many ways, it’s a nicer word for favoritism or the old “boys’ club.”

Proximity bias doesn’t stop at geographic closeness; it also extends to visibility within the company. The more visible certain employees are, the easier it is for managers to build trust with them and promote them. If a certain employee has a connection with management or is a better performer, they have more visibility than someone new, quiet, or laid back. This happened before COVID-19, but the issue has become more prevalent as more employees go remote. Now, leaders are trying to decide how to deal with it.

What happens if leaders don’t find a way to manage proximity bias? Quite simply, employees will leave. They’re not sticking around and sucking up. The pandemic gave people the chance to rethink where they are, what they want to do, and who they want to work for. Employees are in the driver’s seat, and leaders must adapt if they want to retain workers. For instance, after dealing with high turnover, a truck driving company I’ve consulted decided to introduce more comprehensive manager training. Now, driver managers know their job isn’t to dispatch loads but to ensure driver success by building relationships and improving visibility.

If you’re worried proximity bias might be an issue in your own workplace, use the following steps to prevent and overcome the problem before it impacts your workforce:

Empower employees to drive their own visibility

Being visible used to mean coming in early and staying late at the office. This isn’t the case anymore. Today, being visible means offering opinions and suggestions for improvement and taking on leadership roles in impactful projects. Because the new generation is more career-oriented than company-oriented, your responsibility as a leader is to explain what’s changed and provide opportunities for employees to drive visibility.

Much of the onus in fighting proximity bias is with management. But managers should also have the expectation that they’re dealing with adults who are responsible for their career advancement. As long as you’re providing visibility and feedback along the way, the responsibility lies with employees.

Be responsive to employee ideas

Once you’ve encouraged employees to pave their own ways, it’s critical to recognize them for their efforts and respond to their ideas. Foster an environment where employees can become visible. Be open and responsive to ideas, and fairly evaluate their performances.

Salespeople, who typically work outside of a company’s headquarters, present good examples. Sales managers tend to recognize and react to employees’ ideas to close more deals. Leaders manage performance and feedback through metrics, and they continually amplify diverse voices within the company and act on feedback to capitalize on opportunities.

If people show up and are career-oriented, and you don’t take their feedback and recognize them, then someone else will notice them–and they’ll move on. It won’t be as hard for new generations to get noticed elsewhere.

Provide stimulating work not hierarchy

Career progression is no longer a straight line, even if an employee moves up within the same company. What’s the next opportunity for them? Sometimes people’s passions don’t align with their roles. Leaders can’t ignore that. You must find ways to support what people want to do. You have to stop telling people to stay in their lanes, because the road is evolving into multiple branches.

Put another way: A career ladder shows a path of advancement, but it won’t move fast enough in a big company. Instead, providing challenging work, engaging people in projects, and pushing the distribution of power are more meaningful pursuits for management.

Create space for employees to voice their opinions

Society tells us that leaders drive everything. They give people jobs and tell them how they’re doing. But that assumption shortchanges you of valuable employee opinions and feedback.

For example, at my company, one worker shared at a feedback meeting that she’d like to be more involved in sales and have more client interactions. She’s been with the company for 15 years, and I assumed she liked where she was. I figured she’d tell us if she wanted something new. That wasn’t the case; I had to create a space for her to share her passions to help her find a role she loved.

Another tactic I find works well is setting aside time at the beginning of calls for relationship building. Making room in the agenda for people to catch up, or even dedicating separate check-in meetings, is essential.

Proximity bias was already alive and well in the workforce; the pandemic just shone a spotlight on the issue. As a leader, you have a chance to get ahead of this bias in the new work era by discussing expectations with employees and recognizing their hard work. What is one way you can help create space for less visible employees in your company today?

Gloria St. Martin-Lowry is the president of HPWP Group, a consulting company that focuses on leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching, and problem-solving.

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