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Many organizations are still getting used to a work-from-home or hybrid workforce. Even if they use a variety of virtual technologies, that isn’t necessarily enough to create a level playing field between employees. Part of the reason some people may receive preferential treatment in today’s (often hybrid) environment is due to a subconscious tendency known as proximity bias.

What is Proximity Bias?

In short, proximity bias has to do with giving preference to those who are close by. The BBC describes proximity bias as “an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.” Due to proximity, we might distribute projects or tasks unfairly, let certain people “have the floor” more often during meetings, or pay closer attention to those who are nearby…all without even realizing we’re doing it.

Humans are constantly seeking 1) shortcuts and 2) connections. Because of these tendencies, proximity bias is the most natural thing in the world. It’s easier to assign tasks or communicate with those who are in the office next door. And it’s easier to form connections when you’re in the same room as someone, rather than someone in the virtual space. Frankly, that is unfair to those who are unable to regularly be in the office for whatever reason (irregular childcare schedules, caretaking for an ailing loved one, an outlandishly long commute, etc.)

How do we change these impulsive tendencies?

How Do We Overcome Proximity Bias?

The first step is to build awareness.

Once you understand proximity bias and its implications, you can begin working to overcome it. Start paying attention to the interactions you have with those close by, as opposed to the interactions you have with virtual workers. Start questioning your preferences—who is assigned certain projects, who has the most air time during meetings, etc. Tuning in is the first step to making mindful, meaningful changes.

Secondly, normalize logging in.

Even if part of your team is sharing a conference room during a meeting, encourage everyone to log in to their own laptop. That way, you’re conducting one meeting (in the virtual space), instead of two meetings, and in-person participants won’t be able to strike up side conversations or give body language signals that the virtual attendees might not see. Logging in when you’re in the same room might seem awkward at first, but people will adapt (especially if you explain why it’s important to do so).

Third, make sure everyone has equal access to resources.

Files should be shared in a virtual space; action plans and notes should be digitized. To further combat proximity bias, it’s a good idea to promote virtual discussions/forums, rather than rely on casual hallway interactions. Besides, if you use online forums, you’ll have a digital record of ideas and discussions that could be useful going forward.

Fourth, balance in-person meetings/events with virtual ones.

When the office culture revolves around in-person lunches, activities, and get togethers, those who are working remotely are naturally left out. When that happens, their connection with the office and their co-workers (and, often, and their sense of loyalty to the company) diminishes. Instead, make a conscious effort to host online events just as often (or more often!) as in-person ones.

Proximity bias is a very real phenomenon, but it is possible to combat it. Even though it’s difficult to entirely erase this subconscious bias, we can all take mindful steps to minimize it.

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 

HER NEW EBOOK IS CALLED A QUICK GUIDE TO COURAGE
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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