Do you struggle with proximity bias? The answer may reflect the future of your hybrid or remote team.
First, we need to define the term. Proximity bias, as the name implies, means to favor the people closest to you physically. For teammates, this can mean working closer with those who share an office space than those who work in different locations, or from home. For leaders, it often results in the perception of favoritism for those in the office over those located elsewhere.
This idea has been around a long time. A study in the 1970s showed that engineers on the same floor of a building worked together better than those in separate buildings or even one or two floors above. Many people are using that study (and the hundreds since) to show that nothing will beat face to face, synchronous, collaboration.
Proximity Bias is Real. And Natural
To make this example as real as possible, think about when you’re co-working with your teammates. Who do you go to first when you have a question? If it’s a simple question (Is it Tuesday today?), it’s likely the person sitting next to you. Asking someone physically close is usually easier and faster than asking someone else.
Many leaders deal with this on a regular basis. A task needs to be done, perhaps one that requires some supervision. Often, they turn to someone working in the office. First, they are likely to respond to faces they see and think, “Yeah, Alice would be great for that task.” Then, it’s easier to have the delegation conversation right then and there than schedule it with someone who isn’t present. Finally, it will be simpler to monitor and support someone at the same location than if that person is located in a different city. It’s just easier to go with the person in close proximity
What’s the big deal?
In many cases, this is not a big deal. You get your question answered and move on. Why, then are worried about it? Whether you are a teammate or a leader:
- It is easy for those who succumb to proximity bias to cross the line from convenience (they were right there) to exclusion—only going to those physically close and ignoring or at least not giving the same amount of attention to those working from home or third locations.
- The perception of favoritism is almost as corrosive to a team as actually prioritizing one group over another. If it seems like the people in the office have an advantage in terms of assignments, development or promotion it can have a serious negative effect on those located somewhere else.
- At a time when retaining employees and attracting the best talent is more of a priority than ever, can you afford to alienate (or at least not maximize) your talent pool?
As with so many negative behaviors, awareness it key to overcoming the problem. Here are some ways to mitigate our natural tendency to over-rely on those nearby.
Think before delegating tasks.
Does the task require someone to be physically close? Have you considered the best possible person for that task, not just the most convenient? Are you assigning more desirable work to the people in the office than those elsewhere? You may want to reconsider how you are assigning work.
Intentionally mix up the brain trust.
Teams often self-select their members for social fit, how long they’ve known each other and, yes, proximity. Encourage your team and teammates to be intentional about including others. Most teams can benefit from actively including those who aren’t top of mind. A blend of in and out of office workers can forge strong working relationships while avoiding group-think and the notion that the “home team” has an advantage.
Be intentional with your time
Leaders need to give equal (not necessarily identical) time to their team members, no matter where they are or what time zone they’re in. As we’ve said before, the perception of favoritism is as bad for morale as actual discrimination. Use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication to give everyone access to some of your time, no matter where they are located.
Create policies and guidelines that encourage people to reach out to others.
HR and other policies can help create processes where leaders are forced to consider everyone on the team, not just those they see every day. 360 reviews should focus on how inclusive people are of their teammates no matter where they sit. Process can help create better results.
This thinking applies across departments and functions as well.
One of the big concerns about remote work is that it limits the way employees work with their colleagues in other functions or business units. Apply the same thinking to this as you do to your immediate team’s cohesion. Creating new connections and providing a good reason for people to collaborate can have long-lasting impact on the whole organization.
Yes, proximity bias is real. But just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed and overcome.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.