Proximity bias, or distance bias, is the tendency to favor people and ideas that are closer to us in time and space. In workplaces where not everyone is in the same location, unchecked proximity bias can severely disadvantage remote workers, hampering their career progression and causing a sense of disconnection and disengagement.
As a cognitive bias that everyone experiences, yet doesn’t always notice, proximity bias can be challenging to address in the workplace. People are likely to be unaware that their words or actions demonstrate preferential treatment of a particular group.
Remote and hybrid teams can cultivate work habits and practices that are location inclusive by recognizing examples of proximity bias and committing to taking actions to prevent it—together. Read on for how you and your team can combat one of the biggest dangers to equitable, sustainable distributed work.
Examples of Proximity Bias
The following are just some examples how proximity bias can manifest in distributed teams. Review the examples and reflect—individually and as a team—whether you’ve experienced similar real-life situations.
Always reaching out to the same people for input
Always asking the same people for feedback is a classic example of proximity bias, often because you’ve developed a good rapport with certain people and it can be seen as easier to rely on those people. However, consider whether or not the same people you reach out to are really the individuals whose input would be most valuable for any given situation.
Exclusionary hybrid meetings
Meetings with only some remote attendees can be challenging to make inclusive, especially if there are side conversations that remote employees can’t hear, or pre-or post-meeting chit chat that ends up being pertinent to the meeting agenda. Have you ever had hybrid meetings that remote attendees don’t contribute to or “zone out” of? If remote employees are not able to actively participate in a meeting, it’s because the meeting has not been designed for their participation.
Defaulting to in-person activities for the sake of “convenience” and “ease”
Many people schedule tasks to be done in person because they feel that is the easiest solution—however, they are not taking into consideration the great difficulty and inconvenience this presents to people who are not able to attend in-person events.
Making decisions or sharing valuable context offline without documentation
For instance, if a message alludes to information shared in an in-person conversation, but that conversation has not been documented anywhere, remote workers will be missing out on that key context.
Location determines access to promotions and other opportunities
If remote employees are not given the same opportunities for recognition and career advancement, that is an example of proximity bias.
Only having in-person team building events
Not providing virtual opportunities for connecting with teammates excludes those who don’t or can’t participate in face-to-face activities.
Now that you’ve read through these examples of distance bias, what are other examples that you’ve experienced or witnessed?
Recognizing these examples can help you identify situations in which you should be mindful of ensuring an equitable experience for both remote and in-office employees. Prepare yourself and your team with easy-to-implement actions to help combat proximity bias on a daily basis.
Preventing Proximity Bias
There are two types of actions you personally can take to combat proximity bias: actions that prevent bias towards you, and actions that prevent bias towards you AND others. You should develop the habit of advocating for yourself as a remote worker, but also consider how you might be able to advocate for other remote workers as well.
Actions that prevent bias towards you
- Provide daily async updates with priorities and blockers for the day
- Send async video for updates and summaries
- Turn your video on in meetings
- Contribute asynchronously to meetings
- Participate in async conversations on email or messaging platform
- Document expectations with your supervisor regarding checking in, response speed, performance expectations, progress updates, goals and requirements for career progression
- Use project management tools to update progress on tasks and projects
- Follow up on any unclosed loops or unfinished tasks
- Prepare for meetings by reading materials and providing async input
Actions that prevent bias towards you AND others
- Have a discussion about how you can work together to prevent biases from negatively impacting your team
- Establish team agreements to set universal expectations for communication and boundaries
- Track tasks and projects in a project management tool that align with quarterly or annual departmental and organizational goals
- Remind team members to consider the experience and needs of remote workers.
- When working out of the office, provide ways for remote team members to participate in meetings, activities, and projects.
- Assign a team member to be the “voice” of anyone not in the room to advocate for team members not virtually or physically present
- Check in with team members
- Ask for async updates from others
- Acknowledge updates, messages from others
- Recognize contributions from others
- Send affirmations to team members
- Develop connections in 1:1s
- Add written reminders in communication channels, agreements, and meeting documentation to consider the perspective of remote and in-office employees
- Check meeting agendas and invites to ensure inclusion
- Confirm documentation of meeting discussions, decisions, action items
- Amplify virtual, in-person, and async contributions in meetings
- Convert synchronous meetings to asynchronous processes
Systems that prevent bias in teams
In addition to the actions that you can take as an individual, there are also systems that you can put into place in distributed teams that can prevent this kind of bias on a structural level. These systems include:
- Results-based performance metrics (as opposed to measuring success based on input, like time worked)
- Meeting and working norms that take into account remote and in-office employee experiences
- Connection rituals and cadences that include opportunities for all employees to develop meaningful relationships with team members, regardless of their location
- Decision making processes that don’t rely solely on synchronous conversations
- Defaulting to asynchronous communication
If even one person on your team is working remotely, everyone on the team needs to be aware of the dangers of proximity bias and take action to prevent it. Learn how to keep this bias from negatively impacting your career in our Growplaceless course, and if you’re a leader of a remote or hybrid team, enroll in Leadplaceless today to learn how to build the skills and habits to combat distance bias in your team.