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Preventing proximity bias in the return to the office

Rena Magdani, Partner and National Head of Employment, Pensions & Immigration - Freeths LLP

‘Proximity Bias’ refers to the unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. The pandemic has increased home/hybrid working and increased the physical distance between employer and employee, potentially limiting career opportunities and progression.  As offices begin to get back to some normality, it is important for employers to understand proximity bias and the steps they can take to ensure that it is minimised.

Proximity Bias can be seen in a number of workplace scenarios, but some examples include:

  • Onsite employees leading hybrid meetings and leaving remote employees fewer opportunities to contribute;
  • Onsite employees being delegated more rewarding/promotable tasks, or
  • Onsite employees receiving higher performance metrics compared to their hybrid colleagues.

Why should organisations identify it?
Proximity bias creates problems for both the employer and employee. For example, the unconscious exclusion of remote workers on key projects may limit the contributions of talented staff and ultimately result in a lower standard of work for the employer. The employee, on the other hand, is denied the opportunity to showcase their skills and be rewarded for that.

This lack of opportunity for employees may increase the rate of staff turnover as employees can feel unhappy or ignored due to a lack of engagement and career progression with their employer. For the employer, this is concerning in the context of ‘the Great Resignation’, referring to the record number of people leaving their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Many employees now believe that hybrid work is the future and therefore value an employer’s flexibility in relation to remote training, development, and progression.

From a legal perspective, there is the potential for proximity bias to give rise to claims for discrimination. For example, female employees are more likely to request flexible arrangements and working from home due to childcare responsibilities. This choice may give rise to proximity bias whereby female employees with caring responsibilities are overlooked for promotion. It is clear, therefore, that proximity bias has the potential to disproportionally affect certain groups and potentially put a large number of an organisation’s workforce at a disadvantage.

Also, lower-income employees may seek to reduce expenditure on commuting by working from home and become more susceptible to proximity bias. It is likely that this choice will become more prevalent due to the rise in the cost of living.

Combatting the Bias
There are a number of measures that can be adopted by employers to ensure that all employees are engaged in and contributing to ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ conversations associated with in-person working.

Utilising technology with the growth of hybrid working is an effective strategy to stay in regular contact and familiarise colleagues with one another, regardless of their physical locations. This can be achieved through scheduled regular catchups or socials, as well as ensuring that all employees have equal presence in hybrid meetings, thus preventing those physically in the office from leading the discussions. The correct approach should be considered on an individual basis, with the intention of maximising the benefit for each employee.

Another significant step an organisation can take in order to reduce the effects of proximity bias is to invest in training to equip staff with the knowledge of how to identify and minimise proximity bias. Training should be aimed at the entire organisation, with particular focus on managers and team leaders, who may be most susceptible to favouritism towards those in their immediate vicinity. Preventing proximity bias should be incorporated into a wider employer initiative with the objective of ensuring that an organisation’s culture is structured in a way that mitigates the risks of bias.

Whilst it may be difficult, if not impossible, for an organisation to completely eradicate proximity bias from its workplace, taking appropriate steps to become more aware of the issues and implementing positive measures can help to reduce the risk of this.

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