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What is Proximity Bias?

Key Takeaways

1. The human brain has an innate quirk which leads us to favor people and ideas which are familiar over those which are unfamiliar. This is called proximity bias and can lead to remote workers, or anyone not working standard hours at HQ, being included less and recognized less.

2. Proximity bias has a negative impact on both workers themselves and on their company which is failing to get full value from its employees. As hybrid (partly remote or distributed) working models become the norm for post-COVID global businesses, the risks from proximity bias grow, and the need to mitigate it becomes more urgent.

3. Recognizing proximity bias is the first step towards addressing its risks. Business leaders and managers should be wary of the common but false assumption that employees visible in an office will necessarily be more productive than those working out of sight.

4. If proximity bias is ignored, businesses risk giving responsibilities, promotions and rewards to workers for being present and familiar to their managers rather than focusing on those who achieve business goals, develop high levels of competence, and have influence with clients.

5. Fair performance management, well-functioning collaborative working platforms, and more effective and tailored communication by managers and business leaders can all be used to boost inclusion and minimize proximity bias.

With a hybrid workforce of distributed and at least partly remote employees increasingly common amongst international businesses, mitigating proximity bias should be on the agenda of all good business and HR leaders. Like other forms of cognitive bias, proximity bias is both unconscious and insidious. It can seriously damage the culture and performance of a company if allowed to run unchecked.   

If you have a fully or partly remote workforce (also known as ‘going remote-friendly‘), proximity bias cannot be ignored. While it’s a natural feature of our brains and therefore impossible to entirely eliminate, we can learn to recognize our innate bias and the risks it poses. Acknowledging proximity bias enables us to take steps to reduce its influence on business operations and staff management, especially for remote workers, foreign or overseas employees and those not working standard office hours. 

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What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias is another name for the inherent tendency of human beings to favor the people and ideas physically closest at hand and therefore most familiar to them.

While often unconscious, this is a cognitive bias which can have a strong negative effect on team morale and performance, undermining attempts to institute fairness and equality in performance management and reward. Failing to tap into the skills and competence of the full workforce is also a clear loss to the employer. 

Examples of proximity bias in the workplace might include:

  • 1. Managers rating the work of on-site employees more highly than remote employees regardless of objective performance metrics
  • 2. Interesting projects or development opportunities being offered first to those working in the immediate vicinity of company seniors
  • 3. Employees working from home or from satellite offices being unintentionally excluded from an important meeting held at HQ without adequate provision for remote attendance.

Why does proximity bias matter?

If allowed to operate unchecked in a working environment, proximity bias may have unfortunate consequences for workforce performance, business success and the bottom line of your company. For example:

  • Less robust business decisions
  • If you only involve on-site workers in important meetings and decisions, you risk of making sub-optimal business choices that fail to include the full knowledge, experience and perspectives of your wider workforce. For more robust strategy and decisions, business leaders should include all those able to add value, and ensure that IT provision and other commitments allow this to happen. 
  • Less long-term vision
  • Allowing proximity bias might appear to offer short term benefit in terms of ease and speed of daily working but this can be very quickly cancelled out by the long-term risks of demoralizing remote workers and setting the business on a badly informed strategic course.
  • Less workforce competence
  • If promotion and reward processes are influenced by physical presence over objective performance metrics, this reduces the chance of getting the best people into key jobs.
  • You can learn about how to effectively track the performance of ‘non-proximate’ employees at How To Track Performance in Remote Teams.
  • Turnover is also higher when staff engagement falls, and high-performing staff are more likely to find new external opportunities. Businesses may be left with a mediocre core workforce and management promoted more for presentee-ism than achievement. 
  • Less workforce diversity
  • With higher numbers of women, international workers and workers in minority ethnic groups among those who have traditionally chosen to work remotely, losing competent remote workers from a company can easily mean that you lose perspectives and experiences from these groups disproportionately. A less diverse workforce can lead to group think, poorer problem solving, and less long term business resilience.

How to avoid cognitive biases in decision-making

Most cognitive biases are a result of the way the human brain has evolved to help us make quick sense of large quantities of complicated information. As such, we can’t completely eliminate them. What we can do is recognize these natural tendencies and find ways to limit their influence in areas where they are not helpful.

Broadly speaking, we can avoid cognitive bias in our decisions through more objectivity, more inclusion and more diversity in corporate processes. For example:

 

  • More objectivity
  • Designing  performance, promotion and project allocation processes to be more objective and metrics-based enables workers to be considered in terms of actual rather than perceived achievements. This makes assessment less reliant on the subjective viewpoints of individual managers and can reduce the influence of cognitive bias.
  • More inclusion
  • Including measurable results, peer and stakeholder feedback, and other relevant evidence should be at least as important as line-manager instinct in shaping performance reviews. A wider set of inputs can make performance reviews more evidence-based and less easily skewed by individual cognitive biases. 
  • More diversity
  • Allowing peers and stakeholders to nominate colleagues for financial bonuses and other rewards can raise morale while making managers and leaders more aware of who is well-respected and delivering results in the wider organization and its networks. This can actively challenge cognitive biases and open minds.

How to avoid proximity bias

While acknowledging proximity bias is usually the first step in addressing it, there is no one route or program for reducing proximity bias in working life. Business and HR leaders will need to consider and adjust their own corporate processes appropriately depending on the nature of the company and its starting level of proximity bias.

Options to consider should include:

1. More inclusive ways of working

In companies where meetings remain an important for sharing information or making decisions, remote workers need to be included as part of business-as-usual. In some organizations this could mean making all important meetings virtual (i.e. even on-site workers log in at their desks). At a minimum, it should at least mean that the option to attend a meeting remotely is always in place.

Opening up decision-making beyond a single meeting is another inclusive working tool which tackles proximity bias. Facilitating multiple and potentially asynchronous inputs via collaborative working tools, email or phone, captures a wider range of views and expertise. This may then lead to more robust decisions which are understood and backed by more of the workforce.

2. Social inclusion

Team building and social activities should also include those not on-site during core hours. Some companies organize both virtual and real-life activities or alternate the two. Others mix real and virtual activities (e.g. quizzes with on-site or virtual participation). Asynchronous and remote workers can take part in a series of events or ongoing activities (e.g. fantasy football) with remote or locally organized sessions or teams.

3.Reliable IT platforms with functional collaborative working software

Inclusion of remote workers is highly reliant on IT infrastructure, equipment and software. Business leaders should ensure that full provision is made for whatever forms of collaborative working, remote working, asynchronous working and other models are relevant to their workforce. 

4. More objective performance management and reward

Instituting a performance framework with more objective goals and metrics can help to limit the influence of proximity bias. Obtaining good quality 360 degree performance feedback on employees and inviting peer and stakeholder nominations for bonuses and awards can challenge proximity bias in the minds of leaders and managers as well as reducing its power. 

5. Proactive and inclusive communication

Managers can be proactive in challenging their own proximity bias by communicating equally but differently with all staff, rather than focusing on on-site workers by default and others as an afterthought. They should plan and structure their communication to offer the same level of management oversight and support to all through the most appropriate means for each team member or group of individuals.

This might mean delivering the same message through multiple channels for on-site and remote workers, allowing time to use a collaborative working platform to engage asynchronous workers in another country, and making themselves available for any team contacts and questions at regular times or on regular channels. 

Horizons Can Help 

Horizons are specialists in the recruitment and management of diverse and distributed workforces around the world. We understand cognitive bias and how it can impact business success.

Get in touch with us today to discuss how we could help you reduce proximity bias in your company and make the most of your global workforce.  

Frequently Asked Questions

A simple proximity bias definition could be set out as the tendency to favor people and ideas close at hand over those further away. In a working context, it often refers to leaders and managers showing undue preference to staff in their immediate physical environment compared with colleagues working remotely or in other office locations, regardless of actual performance. 

The impacts of proximity bias are insidious and potentially wide ranging. Proximity bias can result in a less competent workforce, lower staff engagement levels and poorer business decisions. This in turn may lead to lower workforce productivity, high turnover amongst competent staff, and reduced business profitability.

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