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Proximity bias: Is working remotely going to harm your career prospects?

Virtually every business struggled during the pandemic, with a lot of them, unfortunately, failing to withstand the impact. But there’s absolutely no question that the number of companies that went under would have been much higher if not for remote workers. But research suggests that telecommuters aren’t getting the recognition or support they deserve. So, let’s look at proximity bias at work, and how it’s keeping your remote staff from being treated fairly.

A fifth of professionals have remote work fears

Remote work has proven extremely popular, even as things return to some sense of normalcy. New research from Momentive shows that 44% of working professionals see hybrid work as a key benefit of the modern workplace. Four-day work weeks (42%) and unlimited holiday (41%) are the most sought-after benefits that UK employees don’t already have.

That’s great news for proponents of equal access to greater job flexibility. But unfortunately, those aren’t the only findings from Momentive’s study. One in five professionals surveyed by Momentive reported concern about missing out on both learning opportunities and chances for career development as a result of working remotely.

And those fears might be justified. One in four also admitted that they’re more likely to seek the opinion of physically present staff over remote colleagues. While that doesn’t necessarily translate to missed opportunities, it’s still a clear example of proximity bias at work.

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias at work is exactly what it sounds like. Essentially, you’re more likely to think of the people you interact with regularly than those you see quite rarely. As you can imagine, it presents a serious challenge to managers looking to maintain a fair and equitable workplace culture.

Proximity bias can occur in any business, and isn’t necessarily exclusive to hybrid or fully remote organisations. Even in a traditionally run company without any telecommuting, proximity bias at work still exists. It can be a serious contributing factor to things like managerial favouritism and faulty performance evaluation.

But, for all the advantages that hybrid work models provide, they also have their share of challenges. For example, worsening the effects of proximity bias in your business. GitLab’s Darren Murph laid out the issues caused by proximity bias in an interview with Protocol. He pointed out that hybrid structures essentially create two playing fields for employees:

‘But if the office reopens and executives are first in the office, and even if they say you have a choice whether or not to come in, it sends a very powerful signal that the choice you have now is between your family or your career. You can go to your office and be seen or you can choose your family and go remote. If you have two playing fields to administer, they are inequitable by design.’

The stats don’t lie about proximity bias

Proximity bias at work has been a problem for some time now. Long enough that there’s a body of statistical evidence showing the impact it has on career development for remote workers. The one silver lining is that, in 2020, gross pay for remote workers was 20% higher for remote staff than office-based staff.

But the circumstances behind that are pretty obvious. It's also true that those working from home had less than half the sickness absence rate. They were more likely to work evenings.

ONS statistics show that, from 2013 to 2020, staff who largely worked from home were 38% less likely to receive a bonus than employees who never worked from home. And until 2017, those who worked mainly from home were less than half as likely to be promoted.

That's despite ONS stats also showing that remote workers generally performed almost twice as much unpaid overtime as office-based colleagues. The problem is that passive facetime builds up the perception of traits like commitment or dependability. So, people you see every day are more likely to stick in your head when you think of dedicated workers.

This seems to be a real concern to employees. The Matrix Recruitment Workplace Equality report surveyed almost 1,200 Irish employees across a range of industries. 53% were concerned they would "lose out" by continuing to work remotely. 38% were worried about being asked to take a pay cut. Even more severely, 60% were anxious that remote work would harm their career prospects.

How to overcome proximity bias at work

Proximity bias at work should be a major concern for hybrid businesses. But does that mean hybrid work models should be written off altogether?

We don’t think so. It’s not practical for every business to go fully remote. But the career accessibility and business resilience afforded by job flexibility are too important to ignore. It’s down to business leaders and HR professionals to figure out how to best untangle proximity bias and remote work. That way, you'll to support hybrid work career progression more effectively in the future.

Encourage collaboration between different groups of workers

As a manager or HR professional, it’s one thing for you to sit up and take notice of your remote staff. It’s another entirely to increase their visibility across the whole organisation. People tend to collaborate with those around them by default, so it can be worth mixing things up. Aside from making remote staff more visible to their co-workers, it also gives them more opportunities to bring their own strengths and unique insight to the table.

Emphasize both manager and peer recognition

Recognition is that all-important something that remote workers often lack. As a manager, you can do so much good just by taking the time to personally praise your remote employees. Give them a personal compliment and congratulate them on a job well done. But don't forget that peer recognition is just as important, if not more so.

Check in regularly with your remote staff

A regular employee check-in is the ideal way to support the career development and wellbeing of your remote staff. The fact that it's light-touch means it won't be disruptive, while the regularity means there's always one on the horizon. Questions are completely customisable on the employee level, and managers can set objectives using SMART Goals or OKRs. And although we’d recommend weekly check-ins, managers are free to set the regularity however they like.

Take a remote-first approach to communication

If there’s one thing remote workers miss out on, it’s the benefit of impromptu discussions. Sometimes, people bring up important topics, or even make decisions on the fly. Don't just assume something is general knowledge because you discussed it with a packed office. When you do, it can easily slip through the cracks without ever even coming up in a formal meeting.

When we say you should communicate with a remote-first mentality, we don’t mean you should start ignoring your office staff. Just that remote workers need to be considered at every level. You should upload minutes or recordings of meetings where employees can view them. And don't forget to make use of asynchronous communication channels to keep people updated.

And those are more or less the basics of overcoming proximity bias at work. Remember, remote employees can be some of your most productive workers. But only if you treat them right and give them the support they need to thrive.

Ensure you're remote teams are in the loop and comms are a focus with a weekly employee check-in.