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When working remotely, have you noticed that there are fewer meetings with remote workers than in-office workers? That remote workers are left out of in-office meetings? Or, in hybrid meetings with remote and in-person attendees together, remote attendees participate less or are given less attention than in-person attendees? That employees who are physically close to their managers are getting more interesting projects? Your onboarding process or new employee training is less robust for remote workers than for in-office workers?

If your answer is yes to at least one of these questions, you are facing proximity bias. In this blog, I provide an overview of the following:

  • What is proximity bias?
  • How does proximity bias manifest itself for remote workers?
  • How do Industrial and Organizational (I-O) psychologists help to create an inclusive remote workplace?

Proximity Bias

Proximity bias is a type of unconscious bias that we all have. Also known as the propinquity effect, it refers to the tendency for people to form closer relationships with those who are physically close by (Festinger, 1950). In a remote work environment, people who are in positions of authority may form stronger relationships, show favoritism, or give preferential treatment to employees who are closest to them physically. One reason is that proximity increases familiarity which breeds liking (Newcomb, 1960). When people are in contact with one another, they are more likely to share similarities, form intimacy, break down monolithic perceptions of their group memberships, form friendship and develop trust (Allport, 1954; Ensari, 2002). In a recent survey by the video collaboration firm Prezi Inc., 66% of 1,100 enterprise workers said proximity bias exists in their company cultures.

Proximity bias in remote work poses a challenge for every remote worker, however it may exacerbate existing inequalities, and more negatively impact certain disadvantaged groups. For example, to work from home effectively, people from low-income backgrounds may not have access to the workspace required; women with young children or elderly relatives at home may not have the required cognitive availability; people with disability may not have equal accessibility to the technology; people in different time zones may not participate in instant messaging or video chat. Therefore, it is critical that organizations and leaders address this bias in their workplaces.

How I-O Psychologists Help to Reduce Proximity Bias in Remote Work

Based on their training in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness (DEIB), I-O psychologists develop and apply evidence-based practices to address DEIB issues in organizations. To reduce proximity bias in remote work, there are several initiatives and programs that they implement successfully. Here are some examples: 

1.    Ensure all voices are heard. 

When some employees join meetings in person and some virtually, there is tendency to listen and interact more with those in person. To ensure all voices are heard, facilitators can design team building activities that allow interactions between in-person and virtual attendees. To develop a sense of community, facilitators can utilize opportunities for virtual social interactions, such as virtual social hours, cooperative virtual team projects, interactive online games or activities using collaborative learning applications, or celebrating cultural or religious holidays virtually. Another idea is to start meetings with check-ins and a connection time focusing on non-work-related topics and end with casual chats. Finally, it is important to remind hybrid meeting organizers to be sensitive to time zone differences if needed.

2.    Equitable access to resources, fair pay, and opportunities for advancement.

Remote workers who are away from their office space may lack resources and opportunities that are available to in-office workers. I-O psychologists and HR professionals play an important role in reviewing the performance evaluation process, coaching managers to recognize biases, and teaching virtual leadership skills. In organizations with remote work options, it is critical to:

  1. ensure that remote workers have access to the same equipment and resources needed as in-office workers;
  2. define key metrics for advancement, and track them;
  3. pay everyone in an equitable manner;
  4. make sure that promotions are not based on personal connections or favoritism;
  5. utilize tools that are designed to facilitate real-time communication, collaboration and information sharing, and bridge the physical gap between team members. These can include video conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet), instant messaging and chat apps (Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Discord), project management tools (e.g., Trello, Asana, and Jira), file sharing and collaboration platforms (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive), virtual whiteboards and collaboration spaces (e.g., Miro, Mural, and Microsoft Whiteboard), and task management and time tracking tools (e.g., Todoist, Toggl, and RescueTime). 

3.    Social and emotional support for remote workers. 

Employees who are distant physically can feel socially isolated. Some who work from home may feel exhausted due to child-care, elderly-care, and home-care responsibilities. I-O psychologists help to promote social and emotional support which is key to remote workers’ work-life balance and mental well-being. Here are some examples of support that can be offered to remote workers:

  1. Flexible work hours, wellness programs, and mental health support.
  2. One-on-one meetings to explore the challenges and the needs for special arrangements or accommodations individually (but also systemically if the needs are shared by most remote workers). Form these meetings as solution-oriented, brainstorming sessions on how to overcome these challenges as a team.
  3. Regular check-ins about how they can feel included and stay connected. 
  4. Create opportunities for social interactions such as occasional in-person or virtual lunch or coffee times, company picnic, or networking events. 

4.    Educate all employees on proximity bias.

I-O psychologists who specialize in leadership training and development provide awareness and bias training to help employers become aware of their biases so that they can act more intentionally. Training programs and workshops that address bias and encourage empathy and open-mindedness can contribute to a more inclusive workplace.

Conclusion

Proximity bias remains a prevalent issue in organizations, affecting decision-making processes, collaboration, and overall diversity and inclusion efforts. This blog has explored the concept of proximity bias for remote workers, its causes, and how it can be addressed within an organization. Recognizing and addressing proximity bias is crucial for fostering a fair and inclusive work environment and for creating a culture that embraces talent and innovation, regardless of proximity. Overcoming proximity bias is not only a matter of fairness but also a strategic imperative for organizations to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and remote work landscape.


References

  • Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley. 
  • Ensari, N. (2002). The role of leaders and consultant in fostering an international organization. In R. Lowman (Ed.), The handbook of organizational consulting psychology. Jossey-Bass.
  • Newcomb, T.M. (1960). Varieties of interpersonal attraction. In D. Cartwright & A. Zander (Eds.), "Group dynamics: Research and theory" (2nd ed., pp. 104-119). 
  • Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Bach, K. (1950). "Social pressures in informal groups". New York: Harper. 

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