Proximity bias: How can jobseekers recognize and manage it?

If "working from home" role sounds like it’s too good to be true so there must be a catch – you’re right. There is a catch – proximity bias. If you are interviewing for a remote/hybrid role, or are working in a remote/hybrid role, you will need to think about proximity bias and how it might affect your performance and progression in your career.

What is proximity bias?
According to BBC, Proximity bias is “an unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our vicinity.” In simple terms, it is an unintentional bias that leads one to believe that employees who work in proximity with their leaders/managers are better performers.
Proximity can mean more than just physical location. Now with a global workforce only a keyboard stroke away, proximity bias may be an unfair advantage for those “working in the same time zone” or “working during the same working hours.” Employees working in tandem with their leaders/managers are unintentionally noticed more, recognized often for their work, and are much more likely to receive promotions, raises, and other merit increases.
This stands true even in the case of hybrid work environments. Employees who choose to physically go to their workplace more often or work in the same time zones/locations/timings as their managers are more likely to experience performance-related perks compared to those who don’t.

How can proximity bias affect you?

Lack of recognition:
According to research by Momentive, one out of five professionals report concerns about missing out on both learning opportunities and chances for career development because of working remotely.
The saying “out of sight, out of mind” may, in this case, be true as business leaders and in-office teams are more likely to notice employees working in their close vicinity than those working in a hybrid role, who they meet less frequently or those who work virtually.
If you are interviewing for a hybrid or remote position it is important to ask what the organization does to recognize and support all kinds of workgroups EQUALLY. Assess their answers by noting the inclusion of regular virtual check-ins, team meetings, regular performance review meetings and a set format to acknowledge, recognize and provide feedback for your work.

Losing out on office camaraderie:
Team bonding and a sense of belonging create a positive work environment where employees TRUST the people they work for, have PRIDE in what they do and ENJOY the people they work with!-LinkedIn

It is immensely important that your future workplace encourages a culture that helps people thrive through open communication. With hybrid and remote work models, it can be particularly tricky to experience office bonding and a sense of being a part of a team, especially if you are joining as a remote/hybrid employee. Ask how your future employer fosters workplace camaraderie and what kind of plans do the human resources team or business leaders have in place to help establish it for remote workers. Consider asking what percentage of the business or teamwork from home or are susceptible to proximity bias. The more people working remotely, or hybrid model the more likely the company has leveraged technology and structures to address bias.

Professional Development:
For a job seeker, professional development is a quintessential facet of a successful job opportunity and future career. Not only can it go a long way to help you acquire the critical skills that are required to perform in the current job environment but also help to gain confidence in your work and define your value proposition as an employee.
When working in a hybrid or remote work environment, it can be especially challenging as physical proximity is limited or absent with immediate managers, colleagues, and team members. Remote employees struggle to be seen and volunteer for ad hoc projects to build new skills or broaden their network with other teams. Make sure to find out what steps does your potential employer undertakes to ensure remote workers have access to learning opportunities, coaching, mentorship, and new projects. Take part in cross-functional team projects and committees such as social clubs, DE&I committees, etc. to ensure you are seen and known to every decision-maker.

Knowledge is power
Ask the following if you have an interview for a remote or hybrid role:
1. Do you have a strategy for addressing proximity bias?
2. What does the organization do to recognize and support hybrid or remote workgroups?
3. How does knowledge get shared throughout the organization?
4. How do you offer training and advancement opportunities?
5. What kind of team building activities do you have for remote/hybrid employees to bond with in office employees?
It is imperative to remember that proximity bias is an unconscious bias and is shaped by human evolution, common behaviors, and workplace culture. However, making sure that you as a job seeker are aware of it and are asking the above questions may be a key to avoiding proximity bias as you choose your next opportunity.

Agilus is helping several professionals navigate through the new workforce challenges across Canada with guidance and information resources. Reach out to our recruiting team today to learn how we can support your new job search or to request our free career resources.

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