Insights for Organisations Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

How to Build a More Inclusive Workplace by Mitigating Proximity Bias

John Smith

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed conventional ways of working around the world. Even now, as businesses try to adapt to the new normal post pandemic, they’re faced with some unique challenges – from the changing face of flexible working to the more radical prospect of a four day work week.

In the aftermath of what is being touted as the Great Resignation of 2021, the talent market has become a chiefly candidate-driven one. Fostering an inclusive workplace culture that puts employees first and addresses their needs is key to attracting and retaining quality talent.

According to a recent Deloitte report, 83% of millennials admit to being actively engaged in their jobs when their companies promote a more inclusive work environment. This emphasises the importance of inclusivity not just as an ethical concept but as a veritable force to drive business growth.

A report by Owl Labs on the state of remote work shows that 37% of remote workers admit to being stressed about not feeling seen or heard and feeling like second-class citizens compared to in-office employees. Further, research by the Stanford Graduate School of Business has found that remote workers are less likely to be promoted than their onsite peers in spite of being 15% more productive on average. These statistics point to a recent attitude that has emerged in workplaces post pandemic that is geared towards impacting both worker satisfaction and business productivity: Proximity Bias.

Let’s delve a little deeper into this.

In this blog we’ll look at:

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias is a situation where employees who are physically closer to their company leaders in the office are awarded with more recognition and better opportunities as compared to their peers who are either fully remote or less physically available. Proximity bias stems from a natural human ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude. The Owl Labs report further shows that 39% of employers are expecting workers to be in the office full-time post pandemic, whilst only 29% employees want this.

It is undeniable that inclusivity and business success run hand in hand. But what does a truly inclusive workforce look like? Does it only refer to better racial and gender representation? In order to achieve true inclusivity we must look beyond the usual tick boxes and focus on people.

The Owl Labs report goes on to show that of those that worked from home during the pandemic, 63% needed to provide care for children or a dependent. This identifies a large majority of the workforce that needs flexible or hybrid working arrangements and is perhaps being directly impacted by their inability to be physically present in the office.

An unhealthy culture of ‘presenteeism’ is the root cause of proximity bias. Health Assured defines presenteeism as the practice of employees constantly coming into work despite being unwell. There are several factors that contribute to a culture of presenteeism – from pressure to prove one’s business loyalty to a more extreme case where employees find themselves in a toxic work environment where they feel the need to ‘show’ themselves working. This is what companies need to address to avoid creating a less inclusive work environment where some employees are intentionally or unintentionally rewarded simply because they are more ‘visible’ than their peers.

Common examples of proximity bias in the workplace

Here are some of the most common examples of proximity bias:

Impact of proximity bias

PwC research has found that 86% of women look for employers who have robust diversity, equity and inclusion strategies in place. This links to the fact that more women than men have caring responsibilities which necessitates remote or hybrid working arrangements. Proximity bias which inadvertently penalises remote workers becomes a barrier for employment for those who can’t be physically present in the office. This consequently leads to a less diverse workforce.

According to a recent report, inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and twice as fast. Diverse teams also deliver 60% better results, maximising productivity. By creating a culture of favouritism that rewards onsite employees over remote workers, businesses end up with less diverse teams which in turn brings down overall performance.

Proximity bias effectively excludes a certain section of the workforce. This group of employees then becomes disengaged with the business due to a lack of recognition for their work and feeling overlooked and left out. Engaged teams are 21% more profitable, 17% more productive and score 10% higher on customer ratings.

Ways to tackle proximity bias

An estimated 84% of workers say that they would be happy to work remotely in the post pandemic world with some even willing to take a pay cut. This corroborates the need for businesses to introduce new and inclusive ways of collaboration that can accommodate different working arrangements. This would include always providing the option of joining meetings virtually. There should also be a culture of written communication – this means having a company intranet where possible, where all communication and information can be shared and accessed by all employees.

In order to actively promote a culture of inclusivity, it’s important to include remote workers in social activities like team building initiatives. Mixing in-person and virtual events – for example – a quiz where people have the option of joining onsite and virtually, is a great way to involve everyone.

One of the most effective ways of mitigating favouritism in the workplace is to introduce a transparent merit system. Establishing 360-degree reviews of employees that is formed with data from multiple sources is an effective way of tackling any biases that can come from individual managers or leaders. Introducing peer nominations for bonuses is also a great way of mitigating biases. 

Ultimately, the most important step in addressing proximity bias is to talk about it. Managers should talk to their teams and ask insightful questions to understand where a potential bias may exist. Another good way is for HR to take an active stance. This includes reviewing the performance evaluation process, training managers to identify biases and providing guidance on remote leadership skills.

FDM’s Commitment

At FDM we are committed to creating equal opportunities for all our people. To build and benefit from a truly diverse workforce we believe businesses have to bring in diversity of thought. This includes rethinking and reinventing conventional ways of working and having an approach that is future-facing. We believe in putting our people first which creates a workforce that is invested in the company, leading to improved productivity and business success.

Diversity, equity and inclusion run in our DNA and this is what helps us build diverse and highly skilled talent pipelines both internally and for our clients.

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