Preventing Proximity Bias in the Hybrid Workplace
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Research shows that by 2025, more than 32 million Americans will work full-time remotely. Currently, 98 percentof employees prefer to work remotely at least some of the time. But should they?
During the COVID pandemic, nearly every knowledge worker became a remote worker. These employees were forced to join meetings virtually, communicate online, schedule time with managers and overcome all the challenges of remote work.
With today's flexible workforce model, some employees will return to the workplace full-time, some will stay remote, and others will split time between remote and on-site work. With different schedules, locations and technologies at play, it will become harder for remote employees to be seen or heard than when everyone was working from home.
Being in the same physical building together, on-site employees will naturally have more face time with managers than their remote counterparts as well as the ability to join off-the-cuff, "water cooler" type conversations. According to HR Magazine, 21 percent of employees are concerned about proximity bias and missing out on career progression opportunities because of remote work. Future Forum reports that 40 percent of executives rank proximity bias and the inequities between remote and on-site employees as their number one priority.
The good news is that proximity bias is preventable.
By transforming the digital workspace and being cognizant of potential favoritism toward on-site employees, organizations can foster an inclusive hybrid workplace culture where everyone has an equal voice and opportunity.
Proximity bias is the idea that on-site employees will be favored over remote employees due to their physical proximity to managers and coworkers. Like most biases, proximity bias often happens unconsciously. However, it is hurtful to remote employees and can be damaging to an organization's culture and reputation.
Because hybrid workplaces are highly susceptible to proximity bias, it's important to watch for warning signs. Such bias can be as subtle as remote employees missing out on office perks, being excluded from team lunches or not being able to effectively participate in meetings. Proximity bias can also appear in more obvious and extreme ways, such as the consistent promotion of on-site over remote employees and remote employees earning less than those who work in the office.
In an Office for National Statistics study, for example, employees who worked mostly from home between 2013 and 2020 were 38 percent less likely on average to receive a bonus compared to on-site employees.
Without a hybrid work strategy that combats proximity bias, organizations can become vulnerable to a variety of risks and consequences. The most serious is that proximity bias can unintentionally create a "two-class system," in which on-site employees are viewed as better, more productive workers. A two-class system can trigger a plethora of negative cultural and operational outcomes, including:
- Reduced employee engagement: If remote employees don't feel part of the team or appreciated for their hard work, they won't stay engaged.
- Decreased collaboration: Effective hybrid collaboration requires intentional planning. The more difficult it is for remote employees to contribute and share ideas, the easier it is to cut them out of conversations completely.
- Slower time to market: Less cross-functional collaboration between remote and on-site teams can result in slower decision making, delays in new product launches and an overall lack of innovation within the organization.
- Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) will suffer. Harvard Business Review found that women and people of color are less interested in returning full-time to the office, choosing instead to work remotely when given the option. If organizations don't ensure remote workers can participate fully, we miss out on the business value of diversity of thought and experience.
- Higher employee turnover rates: With more organizations adopting flexible work models, employees have more control over where, when and how they work. If proximity bias is happening at your organization, remote employees won't wait for it to be resolved — they'll simply find a new job that offers flexible working in a more inclusive environment.
Fortunately, there are tactics and technologies that organizations can adopt to support hybrid work and prevent proximity bias before it becomes a problem. Consider these five tips.
No matter where employees are located, hybrid meetings should feel as if everyone is in the same room and is an equal participant.
Meeting software and hardware providers like Cisco, Poly, Logitech and Microsoft have added several new features to accommodate meetings with a blend of remote and on-site workers. More sophisticated cameras and AI technology are used to individually re-frame in-person meeting participants who are spread across a meeting room. This gives every participant equal space on the screen and provides remote employees with a better view to track who is speaking.
Similarly, in Microsoft Teams Rooms, we pair intelligent cameras and enable AI-powered active speaker tracking and people recognition. This gives remote participants an enhanced view of the meeting room and content, so they feel like they are physically in the same room.
Another option is to require all participants to join meetings virtually if there is at least one remote participant. This puts everyone on an equal playing field — a.k.a. a two-inch box on screen — so no one feels unheard or unseen during a meeting.
In addition to giving all meeting participants equal space on screen, remote employees must also be able to contribute as if they were sitting side by side with their on-site counterparts. Leveraging videoconferencing features like hand-raise icons, chat and polling can allow remote employees to add value to the conversation without speaking over someone else or disrupting the meeting flow. This is especially important considering that Forbes reports nearly two-thirds of employees wish to work remotely full-time, while 32 percent prefer a hybrid work model.
Remember the days of attending big, in-person brainstorming meetings? Employees would pile into a conference room, cover the walls in sticky notes and jot down ideas on whiteboards. These meetings were invaluable for idea sharing and solving complex problems. So, how can organizations continue fostering the same kind of collaboration without excluding remote workers?
By leveraging technologies like the Cisco Webex Board and its digital whiteboarding capabilities, on-site and remote employees can collaborate together in real time. As on-site employees write notes on the whiteboard, remote employees will see them appear on their screens (and vice versa). This allows teams to mimic the brainstorming sessions they used to hold in person, virtually.
For less formal collaboration, consider creating a dedicated Microsoft Teams channel or Webex Teams space for random brainstorming, "water cooler" chats, team-building exercises, sharing photos and other ad-hoc conversations that remote employees might normally miss out on. Additionally, Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 are good options for hybrid teams to edit and collaborate simultaneously in real time.
To fully support employees and foster collaboration, culture and innovation, organizations must consider their various employee personas. It may not always be possible to schedule meetings when everyone can join so it's important to have other channels available. Real-time and asynchronous collaboration platforms allow employees to share their thoughts about a project during their individual work hours and remain visible for coworkers to view and respond to later. Voice messages are also becoming an increasingly popular way for employees to provide feedback without sending the wrong tone — a common issue in email and other written communication.
With the ability to work from anywhere, organizations can expand their talent pools and hire top talent across the globe. While this allows for a diversified workforce, it can also create communication barriers for employees who speak a different language than the rest of the team or who are deaf or hard of hearing. To ensure these employees feel included in meetings, leading videoconferencing platforms, like Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, have added real-time transcription and translation so everyone can follow along.
Holiday parties, happy hours, teambuilding outings, new employee onboarding. Traditionally, these events were hosted in person, and remote employees were either excluded or provided a sub-par experience. Moving forward, events must adapt to deliver a hybrid-first experience.
When planning a large-scale event, organizations must ask themselves: How will events be delivered to remote participants? Do we have live-streaming capabilities and support? Can our network handle an influx of employees logging into an event all at once? How is our audio and video quality?
For smaller events within individual teams, managers must consider how they will recreate the on-site experience for remote employees and encourage participation. Using breakout sessions during a virtual teambuilding event, for example, can make it easier for remote employees to participate due to the smaller group size.
Lastly, virtualizing the onboarding process can help new remote employees feel welcomed and connected to the workplace. Virtual office tours allow employees to experience a 360-degree view of offices while reinforcing company culture. Additionally, emerging metaverse-style platforms, like Gather and Webex Hologram, combine the virtual and physical components of the workplace to mimic real life.
In a successful hybrid work model, employees shouldn't have to choose between remote work or career progression. Both are possible if the right tools and processes are in place to prevent proximity bias and ensure inclusion. Achieving this overall vision and culture of inclusivity can be challenging. It requires a holistic digital workspace strategy and a deep understanding of both remote and on-site employees' needs.
To help you get started, our team of experts developed a Digital Workspace Priorities for 2023 report that outlines the top five priorities to tackle first along with step-by-step guidance on how to successfully implement them.