Proximity bias: how to avoid excluding your hybrid workers

23 Nov 21 | Blog

Everyone’s felt alone in a crowded room at least once – for the same reason that a packed tube carriage is an unpleasant experience, rather than a shining experience of social harmony. 

It’s because loneliness isn’t just about physical closeness to people – it’s an inclusion issue. 

In a hybrid working environment, ‘proximity bias’ can lead to unintentionally excluding people from meetings, relationships, and even information-sharing – causing social isolation, loneliness, and a general lack of team connectivity.

After you’ve read our ‘proximity bias’ definition, why not download our free guide to the future of workplaces?

What is proximity bias?

When you’re selecting someone to lead on a project, you’ll gravitate to the person with their hand up – not the one waiting for an opportunity to chip in through a dodgy video link. 

A preference for the present, championing those close-at-hand…  proximity bias is about favouring those in your immediate vicinity. Like many biases, it’s an unconscious one – and insidious in how innocently it plays out. 

Why is proximity bias an issue?

Hybrid organistions are tricky: studies show they have less cohesion than remote-only or office-based teams. And it’s easy to see why, when you consider proximity bias.

Managers favour those in the office because they’re easier to chat with, more visibly ‘at work’, and they have more off-the-cuff interactions – building a stronger relationship, and gradually excluding and isolating those who are primarily out of office:

  • 60% of remote workers say they miss out on information shared in person
  • 55% of remote workers say they are excluded from meetings

If you’re thinking “tough luck for them”, think again. Becoming a successful hybrid organisation means understanding why exclusion happens, and working against it.


business woman experiencing burnout at work

Remote work loneliness: it’s not the ‘remote’ part that’s the problem

The sudden switch to remote working was a challenging one, and the resulting sense of social isolation has come up again and again. In organisations forced to WFH due to the pandemic:

  • 64% of workers reported weaker bonds with colleagues
  • 56% of workers felt less connected to their organisation

So is remote working is the cause of professional loneliness? Though it might seem a logical conclusion, it seems unlikely given the large proportion of the workforce that wants to keep having the option.

In this explanation of why remote working isn’t the cause of loneliness, it makes the point that “your current WFH scenario is not your future WFH scenario”. It’s false equivilance to assume the alternate to office working is a silent spareroom. 

As the world returns to some kind of normalcy, it’ll be harder to scapegoat WFH in itself as the cause of employee loneliness – so planning ways to mitigate proximity bias now is key.

How can you avoid proximity bias:

  • Be aware of it, and make others aware: educate yourself and other managers about proximity bias, so it’s top of mind, and consider training to prevent it. 
  • Consciously stay connected with your team: be systematic in your approach to 121s with team members, so no-one gets left out of the loop.
  • Switch your focus to output and outcomes: structure your performance reviews around what’s been achieved, not how much work you perceive to have been done.
  • Set agendas for meetings, with time to respond: providing clear meeting agendas makes sure everyone has a chance to contribute, and the purpose is clear.
  • …or avoid hybrid meetings completely: ‘remote-only, or office-only, meetings will remove the disparity of experience (and mean less wasted time overall!) 
  • Make office visits a networking opportunity: suggest schedules for your workforce, so you’re in-person when (and only when) it really matters
  • Invest in tech solutions to make life easier: think better video conferencing systems, interactive whiteboards, and survey solutions for regular check-ins.
  • Keep asking for your employee’s feedback: you won’t tackle this overnight, so the best steps is asking for regular feedback from your team

Keep in touch with your hybrid workforce with Qlearsite

Adapting to a hybrid working model is bound to have its challenges – but there’s no need to guess what those will be. As you’re moving into your next stage, get regular feedback from your employees to stay on top of any issues. 

We can help you with that, with surveys proven to get high response rates and practical feedback. Get a free trial to get Qlearsite working for you.

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