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What is the 'mere-exposure effect' and how does it impact remote workers?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
People in an office
The simple act of being physically present in an office environment means our face is seen, people are familiar with us and are therefore likely to be more favourable towards us. Photo: Getty

After 18 months of newly-found work flexibility, many of us are hoping to continue working from home after the pandemic. However, although remote work comes with many perks, there are drawbacks too.

Most home-workers will attest that it’s difficult to switch off when your home is your workplace. Remote work often means spending more hours at your desk than if you worked in an office. And even though remote workers can be more productive, the lack of visibility can make it more difficult to climb the career ladder.

Even before Covid-19, research suggested remote workers risked missing out on career advancement opportunities. In a 2015 study carried out in China, Stanford University researchers found that while home-workers were more productive, they weren’t rewarded with promotions at nearly the same rate as their in-office colleagues. Although they reported improved work satisfaction and their attrition rate halved, their promotion rate conditional on performance dropped.

Clearly, being physically present at work may play a key role in the likelihood of landing a promotion. However, employers may not be consciously selecting in-person employees over those working remotely. Psychological biases can drive our choices without us realising, including who we select for career opportunities. And the so-called "mere-exposure effect" – also known as the familiarity principle – may help explain why remote workers are overlooked for promotions.

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“The mere-exposure effect is the idea that the more familiar we are with something, the more we like it,” says Victoria Stakelum, who calls herself The Success Smith and is a psychologist, NLP coach and leadership and communications specialist. “This is the case even when that exposure doesn't involve any particular content or interaction. Just being seen more often creates more 'like' – a phenomenon shown to be active for objects, brands, sounds and people.”

Naturally, being home-based or working remotely will reduce your visibility to your employer. Although more businesses are embracing remote work, it can be easy for those working from home to feel like they are "out of sight, out of mind" – which can have negative consequences for their careers.

In 2019, a study by the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that being observed by others at work in person led to positive outcomes for employees. According to the researchers, being in a physical workspace allowed people to signal their commitment to their jobs, which led to career advancement.

“The simple act of being physically present in an office environment means our face is seen, people are familiar with us and are therefore likely to be more favourable towards us,” says Stakelum.

“When we are not in that physical environment, the only visibility will be in the context of formal meetings taking place on Zoom. While this is just as effective as being face-to-face from a mere-exposure perspective, the frequency of our visibility is inevitably reduced, since we are not seen as people pass our desks or bump into us at the coffee machine.”

Remote working also makes the interactions we have with colleagues and managers more likely to be work-based and content-filled. There are fewer opportunities for informal conversations and chats over coffee, which can build our relationships with others and lead to advancement opportunities.

“The mere-exposure effect states that frequency is key,” explains Stakelum. “Being home-based inevitably reduces that frequency. The potential risk of this is that when those all-important discussions take place about opportunities for progression, new responsibilities or pay rises, people who are less visible could be disadvantaged.”

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However, forcing everyone into the office isn’t the answer. Remote work can create a vital balance for many employees, enabling them to stay in work while juggling other responsibilities. So what can employers do to level the playing field for home-workers?

“Finding ways to 'bring the remote folk into the room' can also be a helpful mechanism,” says Stakelum. “Plenty of opportunities for informal interaction time through social Zoom-based events, team-building and 'get to know' events can be important to help overcome the shortcomings of having a hybrid working model.”

Employers and leaders should also be aware of cognitive biases, which can help them make more conscious decisions based on performance rather than familiarity.

“Just like the importance of being aware of unconscious bias, being aware of the mere-exposure effect will help you avoid overlooking great talent,” adds Stakelum. “Having robust and objective talent management, selection and evaluation processes is arguably the most important means of avoiding this and other risks that stem from our basic human tendency to bring bias to our decision-making.”

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