So near and yet … Steps employers and staff can take to reduce proximity bias

Employees' presence in the workplace can put them at an advantage over staff working remotely, particularly when opportunities for career advancement and promotion arise. Illustration: iStock

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Proximity bias – where employees in the office are looked on more favourably and given more advancement opportunities than those toiling away at home – is not a new problem but it is arguably a much bigger one in our new world of hybrid and remote working. Visibility in the workplace – and regular face-to-face meetings, coffees or water cooler moments with management – can put those workers at a particular advantage, particularly when opportunities for career advancement and promotion arise.

According to Vicky O’Neill, HR strategy specialist with Ibec, this is an issue which has affected organisations for a long time and it can be tricky to police effectively.

“For years, proximity bias has plagued organisations. The risk is now ever more present given the distribution of talent in a hybrid context,” she says.

Proximity bias, O’Neill explains, manifests as an imbalance, where “visibility trumps merit”. “This can hinder the progression of talented individuals based on their geographic proximity to key stakeholders,” she says.

Its impact can be significant; O’Neill says organisations not only risk having the wrong people in the wrong roles and unable to deliver, it can also be a contributory factor to a toxic workplace culture.

The good news is that organisations are increasingly aware of this issue and are working to remove these inherent biases. “The solution to this disparity lies in not necessarily reverting to traditional on site structures but rather in embracing innovative strategies to level the playing field,” O’Neill explains. “Organisations and individuals can do more to ensure equitable opportunities for all employees, regardless of their location.”

One pragmatic approach is the implementation of a structured performance framework including evaluations and promotion criteria that prioritise objective measures of success over subjective assessments influenced by proximity.

“By establishing clear, transparent guidelines for advancement, organisations can mitigate the influence of bias and create a meritocratic culture where talent and achievements are recognised and rewarded irrespective of where an individual is based,” says O’Neill.

Organisations should also be leveraging technology to facilitate meaningful connections, and collaboration across distributed teams is essential in bridging the gap created by physical distance.

“Virtual communication tools, project management platforms and regular virtual meetings can foster a sense of inclusivity and ensure that remote workers are actively engaged and visible within the organisation.”

Employees can also play a part by taking proactive steps to ensure their talent is not overlooked – “for example, by offering to be a mentor, support new team members or get involved in cross-functional projects”, O’Neill suggests.

“By proactively advocating for themselves and demonstrating their value, remote workers can elevate their visibility within the organisation,” she says. “The new approach to performance experience and development emphasises the importance of individuals also taking ownership of their own performance and development.”

Addressing proximity bias in the most effective way, O’Neill says, requires a dual approach from organisations and employees. “By embracing a culture of inclusivity, transparency and meritocracy, businesses can unlock the full potential of their diverse talent pool. This will help drive sustainable growth and innovation in a continuously evolving world of work.”

Barbara Gerstenberger, head of unit for working life at Eurofound, says the risk of being “overlooked” when working remotely has been discussed in the context of telework for quite some time.

“A possible negative impact of telework on career development due to lack of visibility at the employer’s premises has been discussed in the literature for a good number of years, even preceding the pandemic,” she says.

However, Gerstengerger says that views are split between those arguing that teleworking can hamper career progression and those who see evidence that it can actually accelerate it. A 2012 study found that female teleworkers, especially those with children and those who spend more than 50 per cent of their working hours at home, were more likely to report that they experienced reduced visibility and had fewer career development opportunities. Other research that year found that managers may also see the physical absence of workers as a lack of commitment, which can result in career penalties for the workers concerned.

“But data collected in the 2021 European Working Conditions Telephone Survey confirmed that during the pandemic those working remotely were more likely to report better career opportunities and also training opportunities,” adds Gerstenberger.

Yet she also points out that remote working legislation and collective agreements on remote working have not yet picked up on the issue of unequal access to career progression and training as a result of reduced office presence.

“More research is needed to determine the scale of this issue,” she says.


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