Proximity Bias: Recognize and Overcome Favoritism in a Hybrid Workplace

September 2021 | By Brian Cole, Ph.D.

In an ever-shifting hybrid workplace, diversity and inclusion may be even more relevant as new biases develop. One that we’ve already seen manifest is Proximity Bias, when leaders unintentionally favor those working in the office compared to those working remotely. But where does this show up, how does it affect business, and how can you put a stop to such biases?

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Know It When You See It

Proximity bias—like any bias—can crop up anywhere, anytime. But there are specific opportunities to be on the lookout for:

  • Look for gaps when building teams, managing relationships, or even during informal communications.
  • Are you speaking to your remote people in the same way as those in-office?
  • How are you making up for the missed communication opportunities that occur before/after meetings, walking down the hall together, etc.?
  • Is it possible you’re unconsciously granting new project work to employees you see in person, rather than stopping to consider if a remote employee might be a better choice?
  • Are you providing different types of feedback to those working in the office? Is it more frequent than the feedback you’re giving to remote employees?

Be sure you’re taking the time to observe performance of both groups objectively, and then look for these biases within any feedback opportunities that may arise.

The Far-Reaching Effects

The consequences of unchecked bias can take a long time to manifest, but you’ll see them eventually. It may first appear as “standard” demotivation (Though a lack of motivation should never be standard). A portion of the workforce will be less engaged, with lower productivity and an even lower drive to contribute to the business. Inevitably, this will lead to a lower morale, and two divergent cultures will emerge from the split that the bias created. What follows these divisions? Less collaboration, less accountability, less consistency, and less efficient cross-functional work. This is essentially a domino effect, leading to decreased project performance, fewer opportunities for growth, and eventually, resignation.

This may sound like a worst-case scenario, but we’ve already seen how deeply impacted some groups have been by these new ways of working. Proximity bias can manifest in a number of ways, and research has found that remote employees tend to receive lower performance reviews and even smaller raises compared to in-office coworkers, so it’s vital to ensure you’re focusing on using objective data and information as you conduct performance reviews and determine salary increases and promotions. These biases cannot be waved away, or they will have consequences that will hamper future business endeavors.

Halt the Bias with Intentionality

The very best way to halt proximity bias is to be intentional with your actions. In a hybrid work environment, leaders must have intentionality, even with events that would normally happen organically in an office setting. In the same way leaders can drive high performance, intentionality can be fostered through setting clear expectations. Create and follow guidelines around frequent check-ins and cross-functional interaction. Encourage communication and sharing between employees in the office and those at home.

Reach out for input and feedback on what is or isn’t working from both groups and integrate the two into a cohesive team. Identify priorities for your group (both business outcomes and team interaction), and purposefully and intentionally reinforce the behaviors you want to see.


View the 2-minute video that provides tips on how to intentionally highlight work accomplishments: Spread Positive Gossip to Ensure Engagement in a Hybrid Workplace  

Topics: Leadership, Hybrid Work Environment

Brian Cole, Ph.D.

Written by Brian Cole, Ph.D.