What is Proximity Bias & How Does It Impact Remote Employees?

I didn’t know what “proximity bias” meant when I was asked to write this article about it. But when I learned the definition — an unconscious tendency to favor the people we’re physically closer to — I realized that I had actually been guilty of it when I was a manager.

Not deliberately, of course. Survey data suggests that many managers, like me, recognize and try to counter the natural tendency for employees who are out of sight to also be out of mind. And this is especially true since COVID-19 created so many more employees who are not physically present in the workplace.

Last winter, virtual workspace company Slack used its quarterly Future Forum Pulse survey to ask more than 10,000 knowledge workers questions about “remote vs. office” issues. The findings, published in January, led to this conclusion: “The future of work isn’t either/or — it’s both.” And while the flexibility to work remotely some or all of the time has actually improved job satisfaction for remote and hybrid workers, the risk of proximity bias has been a growing concern among executives.

“Forty-one percent of executives cite the potential for inequities to develop between remote and in-office employees as their top concern (up from 33% last quarter),” Future Forum reported.

I used to manage half a dozen employees, and one was 200 miles from the office where the rest of us worked. Although we used Skype to include him in regular staff meetings and he was included in every email I sent to the team, I realized too often that I would forget to send him information that I casually shared with employees in the office.

After the spring of 2020, when almost everyone on staff worked from home most of the time, that problem solved itself. There was no casual information-sharing; all communication had to be deliberate and inclusive. But home confinement has been replaced by a hybrid model — some people working in the office, some people at home, some people splitting time between home and office — that may result in even more cracks in team cohesion.

And there are far worse forms of proximity bias than being the last to learn about a development in the office. In an article published earlier this year by the Society of Human Resource Managers, Arlene S. Hirsch enumerate these common examples:

  • “Evaluating the work of onsite employees more highly than remote employees regardless of objective performance metrics.

  • “Offering the most interesting projects, assignments or development opportunities to onsite employees”; and

  • “Excluding remote employees from important meetings or not encouraging them to speak up on calls.”

One factor contributing to the risk of proximity bias, Future Forum found, is “the vastly different preferences of executives and employees. Forty-two percent of executives report they work from the office 3-4 days a week as compared to just 30% of non-executives.” And that was a year ago. At that time, fully three-quarters of executives wanted to work primarily in the office, even if they were still working remotely, but fewer than 40% of non-executives wanted to return to the office most days.

Being able to work remotely has been associated with greater job satisfaction — what the Future Forum calls “experience scores” — for non-executives, who see remote and hybrid work options as an improvement in their company culture. But trying to manage those remote or hybrid workers has done the opposite for executives. In the most recent Future Forum Pulse survey, executives reported significant declines in their experience scores.

So how can proximity bias be prevented? 

In her article for SHRM, Hirsch interviewed experts who recommended more frequent check-ins and conversations between manager and employee, something that was part of my personal effort to be a better manager of my remote staff member. Another tool: Shaking off the assumption that an office setting is necessarily more productive than remote settings.

“Awareness is half the battle,” Jason Liem, founder and leadership coach at MINDTalk Coaching in Oslo, Norway, told Hirsch. “When you become aware of it, you can act more intentionally.”


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