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After more than two years of pandemic-related upheaval, many companies have finally settled on long-term policies dictating when, where, and how their employees are expected to show up to work.
As of June 2022, 49% of global knowledge workers were working in a hybrid arrangement, spending some of their time in the office and some of their time remote; 34% were full-time in the office; and 18% were full-time remote.
The fact that three out of every five global knowledge workers now have at least some flexibility to decide when and where they work is ultimately a very good thing; knowledge workers with flexibility consistently report less stress and anxiety, better work-life balance, and greater satisfaction with their jobs than fully in-office workers.
But in offering employees more flexibility, leaders need to beware a major pitfall: in a 2021 Gartner survey, 64% of managers said they believed that office workers outperform remote workers—and that those office workers should be first in line for the next raise.
Those managers were expressing what experts call proximity bias, showing a preference for employees who they spend more time around. It’s a cognitive glitch that has serious implications for workforce equity, company productivity, and employee attrition.
As more and more workers demand flexibility, how can executives make sure all employees are treated fairly, regardless of working location?
Proximity bias, defined
An unconscious tendency to favor the people we’re physically closer to. In flexible working environments, proximity bias heightens the risk that in-office workers will receive preferential treatment simply by spending more in-person time with their managers.
What is proximity bias?
Psychologists coined the term “proximity bias” in the 1970s to describe an unconscious tendency to form more positive perceptions of people we’re physically closer to. On hybrid teams, proximity bias causes managers to value employees who show up in the office more highly than remote workers—even though reams of research show that remote workers are typically more productive than their in-person counterparts.
Left unchecked, proximity bias can steer managers into promoting less effective employees and shortchange those who don’t put in the same amount of facetime. And because white men are both disproportionately likely to be in leadership positions and to want to work from the office compared to people of color and women, proximity bias runs the risk of hampering companies’ progress on DEI goals and perpetuating racial and gender inequities.
Examples of proximity bias
The early research on proximity bias established links between physical proximity, familiarity, and positive sentiment. A 1974 study showed that police academy recruits formed stronger bonds with classmates whose last names were closer to theirs in the alphabet, since seating charts arranged students alphabetically by last name. (Other work has expanded the concept of proximity beyond physical distance. World Cup ski jumping judges tend to give higher scores to jumpers who share their cultural background—what the researchers called “cultural proximity bias.”)
“There’s lots of research showing that just being around somebody a lot makes you more familiar with that person, and that—unless there’s something really offensive about them—familiarity leads to an increase in liking,” says Dr. Kimberly Elsbach, an organizational psychologist and emeritus professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.
In our personal lives, proximity bias serves as a kind of mental shortcut that shapes our relationships with our friends and family. In the corporate world, Elsbach says, proximity bias pushes companies toward a culture in which employees who spend more time in the office are first in line for the choicest assignments, promotions, and raises—regardless of their actual work output compared to their out-of-office colleagues. For example, a 2015 study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that remote workers at a travel agency were less likely to earn promotions than their in-office counterparts, even though the remote workers were 13% more productive.
Elsbach’s research explores how an employee’s career prospects hinge less on their output and more on the amount of facetime they can put in with their colleagues and bosses. In a study published in 2010, Elsbach asked 60 corporate office workers to read a short description of a hypothetical colleague who is always at their desk, both during and outside of normal work hours. She then gave participants a list of 15 words and asked them to circle which words had appeared in the description they’d read. Participants frequently circled “dependable,” “responsible,” “committed,” and “dedicated”—even though those words hadn’t actually appeared in the written descriptions.
“This is called a ‘misidentification task,’” Elsbach explains. “When you misidentify words in the description that weren’t actually there, it’s a sign that you have unconsciously or spontaneously attributed those traits to the person. We found strong support for our hypothesis that if you are seen in the office more often—just seen, as in the person perceiving you has no information about your performance and doesn’t know what you’re actually doing—you could be playing video solitaire, for all they know—but if you’re just visible at work, you were rated much higher for attributes like ‘committed,’ ‘reliable,’ ‘dependable,’ and ‘dedicated.’”
These traits, Elsbach points out, are commonly found on performance appraisals. So the facetime bias “could actually make a difference in things like promotions. But it has nothing to do with your actual output. And managers don’t even know they’re doing it. That’s why we call it a bias.”
In a later study of employee evaluation methods at the UC Davis Medical School, Elsbach observed this dynamic in the wild: Though department policies encouraged working remotely and taking leaves of absence, leaders acknowledged taking facetime into account when evaluating their employees.
Who’s most affected by proximity bias?
Our Summer 2022 Pulse data shows that Asian/Asian American, Black, and Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers prioritize flexible work at higher rates than their white counterparts. Working mothers are also likelier to want flexibility than working fathers, according to the data.
This makes sense. When people of color can work from home, there’s less of a need to “code switch,” or modulate their behavior, appearance, or speech to fit into the dominant culture. And flexible work allows employees with caretaking responsibilities to coordinate their professional responsibilities around their obligations to their children or elders.
So it’s not terribly surprising that white and male workers—who have historically dominated the corporate world—are much more likely to prefer a traditional office environment. Back in February 2022, white employees were already 17% likelier to be back in the office full-time.
Since white and male employees are both disproportionately likely to be in management roles and to want to work in the office full-time, “proximity bias inflicts the greatest damage on women and people of color,” said Katica Roy, CEO of Pipeline, a platform that equips HR teams with data and insights on their workforce’s gender inequities. “Companies that offer hybrid work arrangements need systems to neutralize bias between in-office and remote workers so they don’t further entrench intersectional gender inequity gaps.”
“Proximity bias inflicts the greatest damage on women and people of color.”
Fortunately, researchers and experts consistently agree on a suite of changes companies can make that ensure they’re treating remote workers fairly.
Strategies to overcome proximity bias
“We knew that no matter what our official policy stated, if employees saw executives in the office regularly, they would believe they needed to do the same if they wanted to advance.”
– Robby Kwok, Chief of Staff to the CEO at Slack
Right now, proximity bias threatens to undercut progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion for remote workers. But there’s some hopeful news, too. Over the past year, executive respondents in our quarterly Pulse survey have consistently rated proximity bias among their top concerns with the shift to hybrid work.
It won’t happen automatically, but with commitment and attention, executives can help make sure that the mass transition to flexible work is an opportunity to build a more equal, healthier, and more efficient future for tens of millions of workers worldwide.