The impact of proximity bias The impact of proximity bias - Glassdoor for Employers

The impact of proximity bias

Well into the Covid pandemic, it seemed like remote work was here to stay.  But in more recent times, during what's been called the "Great Return," a wave of employers including big names like Citigroup, BNY Mellon, Google, and Twitter have re-opened their offices. This has created a chasm between employees who want to work in the office and those who refuse to return. The backlash is undeniable and proves that the ability to work outside the office is still an open debate.

While companies and their HR teams continue to battle over RTO, another aspect of this issue deserves attention: proximity bias.  Proximity bias is when a manager and/or other leader has (often unconscious) favoritism towards in-office workers over remote employees. It isn't a new concept, but many might argue that this bias is what continues to lead companies to favor in-office work despite studies that show that workers are more productive when they work remotely. 

Let's delve into how proximity bias happens, how to spot signs of favoritism at work, and how to address this type of bias at your company.

Proximity bias drives inequity and tanks diversity

More than 48 million people are working remotely - about 35% of the workforce, compared to just 6% of the American workforce in 2019. Studies prove that employees want remote work, and that they're more productive when working from home. It's particularly important within specific groups. 

"Research shows people who prefer more flexible schedules, including the ability to work remotely, are disproportionately working parents, women, and people of color," said Marcie Borgal Shunk, president and founder of The Tilt Institute. "Proximity bias adds another layer of bias to populations already at a disadvantage when it comes to development and advancement."

Statistics back this up:  21% of white knowledge workers want to return to work in an office versus 3% of black knowledge workers

Proximity bias may blind managers to complex reasons behind a worker's preference to stay remote. "Ineffective leaders, toxic cultures, microaggressions - are all factors that lead some to prefer the at-home environment," said Shunk. "A preference to develop and promote those who are closest threatens to undermine diversity - of perspective, background, race, and gender."

Proximity bias in practice

Let's explore what proximity bias looks like in the workplace. Let's say, a manager has four direct reports, half are in the office and the other half work from home. The manager could think the workers who come into the office are more productive or somehow better, more loyal employees. This negatively impacts the careers of remote employees.

"Just because work is about relationships doesn't mean being at the office is better for relationships," said career strategist Courtney Kirschbaum of "Fear is at the heart of proximity bias," said Kirschbaum. "The fear of, 'If I can't see you, you won't be productive,' or, alternatively, 'If no one's watching, you'll make bad choices.' Our technology is already there, so punishing employees for embracing what's possible is counter-productive."

Proximity bias can manifest in many ways. When it comes to advancement opportunities and workload, it could lead to passing an employee over for a promotion, assigning an imbalanced amount of work to feel like they're "more productive," or limiting raises. It could also impact their growth if leaders exclude them from meaningful projects. In addition, employees may be cut off socially, feeling like they're entering an unfriendly, unwelcoming atmosphere when they do come into the office. Remote workers may start to feel like their manager is making little effort to retain them and sense that they're easily replaceable.

How to fix proximity bias at your company

Employees deserve to be evaluated on the quality of their work rather than their location. "There is little evidence to support the idea that those in the office work harder than those who work remotely," said Shunk. "In fact, research from such sources as Stanford show increased productivity from remote workers - plus, they're happier."

Fixing proximity bias requires being honest with yourself and then taking action to change your behavior. "Realize proximity bias is about trust, not logistics, and take 100% responsibility for your attitude," said Kirschbaum. "Don't rush people or make wholesale demands that people return to the office. It doesn't make you look decisive, it makes you look frightened of losing control."

If you struggle with making connections with remote workers or feel they aren't contributing the same as in-office workers, do some self-exploration and then find ways to eliminate your bias. Here's where to start with checking yourself:

  • Ask peers if they think you give special treatment to in-office workers
  • Evaluate employee performance on actual results and quality of work
  • Reconsider feelings of it being "unfair" that employees should succeed and grow in remote positions at the same rate as in-office workers
  • Research solutions to building rapport with a remote workforce 

Managing remote workers for success

Letting go of proximity bias and favoritism of in-office workers requires a conscious effort by managers and leaders to accept and understand workers who prefer remote work. If you have evidence that remote workers are underperforming, learn how you can manage remote workers for more success, to improve productivity, and help them feel like valued, engaged team members.