Currently a significant number of companies will know more about remote working full time in unprecedented circumstances than they do about hybrid working full time in more stable ones. Is that starting to show?
Humans have a natural tendency to favour people they are physically close to regularly. This cognitive bias – called proximity bias – is an evolutionary instinct designed to ensure our survival by extending our self-interest to those close to us. We are herd animals. If we protect our herd, we improve our own chances of survival.
It is no different in the 21st Century. A January 2022 Slack survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that the top concern for executives about hybrid and remote work is proximity bias and the inequality it creates between in-office and remote workers.
This blog explores how do we, as individuals and businesses, evolve beyond our hard-wiring? How does this new age of remote and hybrid working impact employee relationships and how do we overcome those challenges?
The pandemic gave us a chance to ditch presenteeism, but now in a world of 24/7 connectivity, it arguably simply takes on a digital guise. Despite the time away from the direct gaze of our bosses, many of us would say we’re sure we’ve worked more since 2020. It’s the race for who can send the first morning email, or who can be seen going above and beyond at 10pm or during the weekend.
Now, there is data to back that up; analysis of productivity patterns in Microsoft 365 has shown a steady uptick in average workday span (+13%), after-hours and weekend work (+28%, +14%, respectively), time in meetings (+252%), and chats sent (+32%).The pressure is high to prove that remote work is real work, that you’re just as dedicated as your in-office peers.
Hybrid working has been put to the test properly for the first time in 2022, and signs might be starting to show that the mindset is still not second nature to us yet- as is to be expected. Working from home is typically framed as a “you can have”, not “you will have”, like the office frequently is. That leaves a choice for people to make, and therefore an opportunity for judgement to be made.
Who is taking up the offer to work from home? Who takes it up most? Who chooses to come into the office regardless? Employees will eventually, if not already, find this mentally exhausting. Some may start to come into the office more for the sake of it, productivity giving way to something more perfunctory. Those who are unable to prioritise physically being in the office more, risk becoming isolated and unmotivated.
Subconscious exclusionary practices are keeping proximity bias afloat
Bias is a heavy word. But in the words of FranklinCovey’s Inclusion and Bias Thought Leader Pamela Fuller, “bias, on its face, is not inherently good or bad. In the simplest of terms, our biases are our preferences”. If we conflate bias with something only bad people have, then we won’t ever see and interrogate our own, and grow.
Because of a human preference to those we are often around, one of the biggest risks of hybrid working is creating a rift between the “favoured” and the “peripheral”; those who are seen as strongly committed and central to the social hubbub, and those who feel optional, out of the loop. People can be quite literally out of sight, out of mind.
In the office, there are more opportunities for spontaneous communication. From chance meetings in the kitchen to popping over to someone’s desk to run something by them, such casual encounters increase your chances of being formally selected for a project or advancement over someone who lacks them. One report showed that 60% of remote workers say they miss out on information sharing that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were in the office, whilst 55% of remote workers say they are excluded from meetings then “filled in” later. All of this adds up to being disconnected and limited – it isn’t simply a feeling.
Bias begets bias
It’s often said that presenteeism is a luxury born from privilege. It’s pegged as a reason behind a lack of gender diversity in leadership roles, and as a reason behind the gender pay gap. Women still make up the majority of parents with primary caregiving responsibilities who cannot simply come in early, leave late or drop everything. In many cases the pandemic has exacerbated the strain already felt by working families.
The pandemic has also complicated generational differences, with post-pandemic values and working expectations varying between age groups. The desire for flexibility and what defines a work-life balance, included. A recent report published by global recruitment firm Robert Walters revealed that 55% of Millennials polled are those pushing hardest for remote working. Over one third (37%) of other age groups feel this generation plays the “family or long-commute card” too often.
Such divisions and diversity in opinion demonstrate just how complex a challenge leaders face with the move to hybrid working, and how important it is to create an “inclusive anywhere” culture that leaves ungenerous assumptions at the door.
How to overcome proximity bias
Some businesses have gone so far as adopting a hybrid-only policy. This entails banning all employees from being based full-time in the office. By barring anyone from being in the office five days a week, they presumably eliminate any favouritism based on proximity.
However, this comes with its own range of issues as it doesn’t consider the wealth of reasons working from home is less conducive to productivity and wellbeing for some, than it is for others. Not everyone has privacy, strong Wi-Fi, or a desk with a view.
With intentional practice, our inherent biases don’t have to limit us or others. We have the ability to grow and change.- Pamela Fuller, Unconscious Bias: Understanding Bias to Unleash Potential, author
A less drastic step would be to simply speak its name. Call it out. Speak about what proximity bias means, ensure people are aware of it, encourage the conscious effort to think about the impact of it and include remote workers in every aspect of the business.
Ask for feedback and invite suggestions from all employees, remote, hybrid or office-based. Consider starting employee-led committees- we have recently done this ourselves with the creation of an Employee Experience Group- to bring all age groups, backgrounds and seniorities together to focus on equity, inclusion, and anything else that impacts the everyday happiness of employees. Use this data to identify areas where resentment is building- or celebration is needed. Prepare to be surprised by the results.
Measure contributions the right way
Calendar scrutinising is the curtain twitching of the hybrid world. Don’t let it happen. It has become easier than ever to slip into the habit of back-to-back meetings that fill the day but don’t move anything forward. It is the digital equivalent of being present and correct at your desk. To stop over-focusing on either scenario, start focusing instead on tracking outcomes. Be clear about what you expect to be accomplished that week, and how that connects to what you expect to deliver that month, and so on.
This is empowering direct reports to connect to the activities that matter most, commit to something they can feel a sense of accomplishment in, and own getting it done in a way that suits them. It’s about deliverables not the optics of dedication.
Model the behaviour you want to see
Your behaviour sends a message. To start confronting your own bias first, here are just a few of the questions you might find helpful to really reflect on…
Is your definition of who is a stronger team member tied to who you see more? Do you give out recognition equally? Are you purposeful about sending a message if you can’t provide a quick “great job by the way” in person? Do you overlook overwork in your direct reports because you’re in the same boat? Do you still see working long hours as something to be rewarded rather than questioned? Are you in the office full time because you feel traditional visibility is expected of you as a leader?
Introducing Leading Hybrid Teams
How can we combine the best of two worlds—remote work and co-located work? The challenge for hybrid leaders is to create an environment in which all team members volunteer their best efforts and highest energy. These leaders need to know that quality work depends on quality of life. They need to be purposeful about what work gets done together, and what work gets done individually.
Create a greater sense of belonging so each team member wants to bring their whole self to work.
Strengthen communications so team members and team leaders are clear, aligned, and able to pivot.
Balance flexibility with accountability so people have freedom to get things done in ways that work for them.
In a world full of more open doors for employees than ever before, leadership cannot afford to expect their experience in the pandemic to be enough to equip them for hybrid working. Combining true flexibility and true equity isn’t easy, but it is essential to creating a winning culture and keeping exceptional individuals.
Click here to download more information this 90-minute session and how it can help your leaders support others and get results in a hybrid world.