Relationships at Work - Leadership Skills Guide to Create a Company Culture We Love

Proximity Bias vs Remote Work - Addressing the Leadership Struggle

February 15, 2024 Russel Lolacher Episode 137
Relationships at Work - Leadership Skills Guide to Create a Company Culture We Love
Proximity Bias vs Remote Work - Addressing the Leadership Struggle
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Relationships at Work, communications and leadership nerd (and host) Russel Lolacher challenges us as leaders to acknowledge and address our own biases, specifically proximity bias as it pertains to remote work.

Proximity Bias is the tendency of leadership to show favouritism or preferential treatment to employees that are close to them physically. With the rise of remote work and hybrid work and employee expectations around this way of working, this bias could be on the rise. Which only reduces our organization's ability to embrace diversity, equity and inclusivity. Russel will walk through the possible impacts, benefits of addressing our bias and steps we can take to minimize it.

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Welcome back to Relationships At Work – the leadership mindset guide for creating a workplace we love.  I’m your host Russel Lolacher

I’m a communications and leadership nerd with a couple of decades of experience and a heap of curiosity on how we can make the workplace better. If you’re a leader trying to understand and improve your impact on work culture and the employee experience, you’re in the right place.

This mini-episode is a quick and valuable bit of information on top of our regular show.

For our latest episode… 

A New/Old Struggle: Proximity Bias vs Remote Work

 I’m going to set a challenge for us as leaders to think a little differently on something specifically. To NOT do what might come naturally. To rethink how we think.

And this one won’t be easy because it’s a bias. It’s a way of working we’re used to. We may not even know we’re doing it.

Proximity Bias. 

Here’s the thing I want to bring up, with the rise of remote and hybrid work, the issues around proximity bias will also become more prevalent. And if we as leaders are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusivity as much as we say we are, we need to take notice of this bias and how it might be even more impactful.

First things first: let’s define Proximity Bias. It’s defined as the tendency of leadership to show favouritism or preferential treatment to employees that are close to them physically.

Can you see why that might become even more of a problem under the new world of work? 

Remote and flexible work allows organizations to not let considerations like geography, financial challenges, access to transportation, disabilities and conflicting priorities get in the way of hiring great employees. So why should those same amazing employees and emerging leaders be punished because they don’t pop their heads in the bosses office or work in the cubicle that boss walks passed every day?
 Answer - they shouldn’t. That’s a natural bias we need to work at addressing.

It looks like as the world is opening up to opportunity in one way, it might be diminishing opportunity in another. 

It’ll be a tough one. But understand this bias is far more about us as leaders, and what's easy and convenient, 
 then it is about recognizing valued team members who deserve those opportunities or improve the diversity of the organization.

Let’s get into the studies!

A study highlighted by LHH, conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that remote workers, despite being 13% more productive, were less likely to be promoted.

A UC Davis study noted that lack of physical presence can lead to reduced visibility for remote workers, impacting their relationships with managers and colleagues.

Many leaders might immediately say, “well then everyone has to come into the office!” But that’s really not inclusive leadership is it? 
 That’s about what’s worked for us, not what works for the employees and culture and expectations new hires will have. 

To combat proximity bias in the face of remote work, we have to be the leaders our employees want. 

So let’s look at figuring out how we can address our own bias. 

I suggest taking a few of these steps:

1.    Acknowledge the Bias: educate yourself and others about proximity bias and its potential impact on decision-making processes. Being aware of this bias and that we may be contributing to it is the vital first step. And communicating it to other leaders is key. 

2.    Use Objective Criteria: establish clear and objective criteria when making decisions, whether it's hiring, promotions, or evaluating ideas. Focus on skills, qualifications, and performance rather than personal relationships or physical proximity. It’s about the right person for the job and looking at it from a “does it have to be the way it’s always been?” lens. 

3.    Diverse Perspectives: intentionally encourage diverse perspectives and input from individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. This can help counteract the tendency to favour those who are physically or emotionally closer.

A sign of a great leader is one that leans into their own curiosity, especially around their own decisions, - and our biases and actions are a big part of that.

Just because we see someone every day, that doesn’t automatically make them the most qualified, the most innovative, the most creative, or possibly the most successful in new roles. It just means they came in every day. 

Combating our biases, including proximity bias, is a great way for us to show our quality of leadership – for ourselves and our teams.