The Big 'Visibility' Question

Proximity Bias blog
September 15, 2023

The recent shift to remote and hybrid work has sparked a nationwide debate in businesses and government offices about how much time employees should spend in the office.

Many businesses say they’re taking a productivity hit from remote working, and want individuals back in the office, where they can interact face-to-face, share ideas and boost creativity, innovation and on-the-job learning. Others cite evidence that people are, on average, more productive at home. No time-consuming commute or in-office distractions, sharper focus, better sleep, and improved work-life balance.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question. Thanks to Covid well and truly shaking up the world of work, we are now in its wake struggling to work out what the new norm is. The proverbial horse has well and truly bolted on the 9-5 (let’s be real, a lot longer!) 5 days a week in the office (and that’s a good thing.) If as business you are still working to that model, you will ultimately catch a fatal cold! However, the hybrid model is far from embedded into our personal and work life and there is palpable tension. This cracking article from People Management shows that 72% of companies globally have implemented a return to the office, with two fifths (42 per cent) reporting higher levels of employee attrition than anticipated.

All this debate has given rise to a real ‘visibility’ worry for many employees. If I’m not in the office, will my career suffer from ‘out of sight, out of mind?’

The short answer is yes, it probably will. It’s something called proximity bias, and it’s having a real effect on the workplace. According to the Harvard Business Review, “proximity bias describes how people in positions of power tend to treat workers who are physically closer to them more favourably, and stems from the antiquated assumption that those who work remotely are less productive than those who work from the office.”

In other words, as humans we intuitively value the contributions that we see, rather than those we don’t — even if the ones we don’t are substantially greater. Just like other forms of unconscious bias, proximity bias is not simply unjust and unfair: it’s actively bad for business. It hurts employee morale, retention, and productivity, and thus company bottom lines. Moreover, given that women and people of colour have a stronger desire for more remote hours per week, it poses a real danger to companies’ DE&I efforts.

So, bottom line up front. Women will continue to take the hit if companies don’t address amongst a shed load of other things (for another time) their proximity bias. And they need to be doing this pronto, as increasingly I am hearing that women who were hired during the pandemic to work remotely or only ad hoc days in the office are now being mandated to be more in the office. For goodness sake STOP - you will lose a lot of good women.

For business leaders here are my top tips.

  • As leaders you need to talk about proximity bias and acknowledge it is happening; just because it is a human trait doesn’t make it OK. It hurts people, and retention and productivity is damaged

  • As a manager, meet your team individually and as a team. Set key deliverables, make it clear that you value collaboration and innovation, output not ‘presenteeism’

  • Work out what works for each team of people. The ‘one size fits all’ approach is what got us all into this mess in the first place!

However, the antidote to proximity bias is visibility and to that end 2to3days has asked Victoria Mclean, CEO at Hanover Talent Solutions & City CV to run what I know (as I have had a run through!) will be a highly educational, interactive and enjoyable webinar. It’s on Wednesday 27th September at 1pm, called ‘How to stay visible in a hybrid world.’ This webinar is for all business leaders and HRDs who want to create a more inclusive workplaces.  We look forward to welcoming you.

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