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Why returning to the office post-COVID could lead to proximity bias

Side view concentrated businesswoman wearing wireless headphones, listening to educational seminar at workplace. Young confident female entrepreneur manager worker holding video call with clients.
Proximity bias, otherwise known as distance bias, is founded on the idea that we work better with people who are physically closer to us. Photo: Getty

Right now, it can be difficult to imagine a world without COVID-19, social distancing and restrictions, but eventually there will be. At some point in the future, we will be able to see friends and family freely, go out for dinner and return to offices instead of working from home.

Although some people will continue to work at home post-coronavirus, others are likely to head back to their workplaces. But will the return of some employees and not others create a problematic hierarchy — and if so, what can we do about it?

We encounter various cognitive biases on a daily basis at work, many of which we are aware of and others that we aren’t. Our tendency to connect with people with similar backgrounds and interests is known as affinity bias. And we may recognise that confirmation bias tells us something is worth doing, even if it isn’t.


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Proximity bias, otherwise known as distance bias, is founded on the idea that we work better with people who are physically closer to us. And it’s this assumption that has been hindering remote working for decades.

“Proximity bias is a bias against remote workers. It’s the false assumption that employees who work in the office — where their managers can see and hear them — will be more productive than their work-from-home colleagues,” says Amanda Augustine, careers expert for TopCV.

“Unfortunately, even companies who promoted a flexible working environment prior to COVID-19 may have unknowingly exhibited proximity bias, which can ultimately hold employees back and damage the corporate culture.”

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In the last year, the rise of remote working has helped undo years of internalised bias by proving distance bias is nothing more than a misconception. For the most part, home-schooling and lockdown loneliness aside, we’ve proved that location has no relationship with our ability to work.

However, with some workers expected to return to offices in the future and others to continue working from home, employers risk falling for proximity bias once again.

“Proximity bias can cause remote workers to be overlooked for promotions or other career-progression opportunities in favour of those who are working onsite,” Augustine says. “Those working from home may feel as though they are left out of the communication loop, as they are more likely to be left off a meeting invitation or an email thread that resulted from an in-person meeting. As a result, they may miss out on key conversations that would otherwise help progress their career or improve their quality of work.”

In addition, remote workers may be wary about working from home if they believe they’re being judged by their co-workers or manager. If an organisation doesn’t truly embrace and support a flexible working environment, it could unintentionally create a cultural rift between those in the office and those at home.

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It’s important for employers to be aware of any proximity biases they may have, albeit unintentionally. “Before sending out that meeting invitation, consider if you inadvertently left anyone off who should be invited,” Augustine says. “Get into the practice of including a video conferencing link or conference call details for all meetings to accommodate every employee, regardless of their work location.”

If you’re a home-worker and if you feel like you’re being left out of the loop, there are steps you can take to remain front-and-centre in the eyes of your manager and colleagues.

“Demonstrate your commitment to the job,” Augustine advises. “This means delivering quality work on time, as well as showing you’re connected and available when your boss needs you. Be cognisant of how long it takes you to respond to inquiries, complete your projects, during your established working hours.”

It also helps to err on the side of over-communication. In addition to coordinating regular one-to-ones with your boss, make a point to regularly update them on your work in whatever format works best for both of you.

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“Remember, your manager doesn’t have as much visibility into the work you’re doing from home, so it’s important that you over-communicate, especially if you’re feeling overlooked, to ensure they feel well-informed of your work,” she adds.

Look for opportunities to connect with your colleagues too, such as virtual lunch or coffee breaks. When working from home, you don’t have those “watercooler” moments for informal chats, so you have to put more effort in.

And finally, address your concerns with your manager head-on if necessary. “If you think you are being left out of meetings because you’re a remote worker, address your concerns with your manager and offer solutions,” Augustine says.

“For example, you may request to increase the frequency of your one-to-ones with your manager or offer to set up a recurring Zoom or Google Meeting for the office meeting you’ve been missing so you can attend moving forward. By offering solutions to your concerns, you may help your manager overcome their bias, whether it’s conscious or subconscious.”

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