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The Impact of Proximity on Productivity

Tips for Keeping Your (Unconscious) Proximity Bias at Bay



Remote work has become a way of life for many and is in high demand for the future of work. But, does it pose a risk to one’s career progression? Does working remotely have a negative impact on work behaviors, team dynamics or what we now refer to as the “employee life experience.”?


With remote work, organizations are seeing a decrease in turnover and stress, a rise in number of high performers and greater productivity. Employees are reporting benefits of improved overall psychological well-being, physical health, as well as a decrease in distractions (thus greater contributions) and an increase in income due to a sizeable decrease in added costs associated with going to office (e.g., commuting). Some are even stating they would trade their vacation time for an increase in flexibility that often comes with remote work.


As we look to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is integrated into everything we do in the workplace, we can’t help but think about potential DEI implications. Unconscious biases may impact the employee’s life experience, in the form of ‘proximity biases’, the assumption that people are more productive when physically in an office environment, often with their managers in sight. The level of risk depends on the extent in-person workers are at an advantage because they are more visible to management or have more access to colleagues and stakeholders.


Tips to Minimize Risk of Proximity Bias

By engaging in a three-step process of Awareness, Audit, and Action, organizations can minimize unconscious bias, create more inclusive cultures, and enhance the employee life experience, regardless of where employees are working.


1.Awareness

Employees, leaders, and organizations need a clear understanding of where they are, what they stand for, and where they want to be.

a.Generate awareness. The first step in overcoming biases is to be aware of them and to acknowledge their existence. Speak openly about these potential biases with your team and recognize that simply naming them removes much of their power to derail meetings, their outcomes and the success of your people and teams.

b. Lead by example. Show your team members that remote working is viable and attainable. One simple way is by being a role model. Take meetings from home yourself.


2. Audit

Once we are aware of our goals and current cultural climate, do a company audit to visit its people practices. For example:

a. Take a critical eye to compensation practices. Research shows the pay gap between men and women may widen due to proximity, if employees working in the office receive differentially higher pay than those who work remotely, and assuming more men return to the workplace than women.

b. Provide learning and development opportunities, regardless of workplace location. Career progression remains a priority for employees in the post-pandemic working environment.

c. Measurement towards goals is objective. Once everyone understands the team’s goals, progress can be measured objectively, focusing on the facts, not the person.


3. Action

The last step is taking action to fill the gaps identified in the Awareness and Audit stages. This requires communication, collaboration, and community.

a. Communication

i. Be intentional about communicating – do so frequently and with transparency. Ensure that remote workers are as informed and feel as connected to their teams as those in the office. Use formal and informal communication channels. (Try a morning huddle with your team to connect with your team daily.) Err on the side of over-communication.


ii. Conduct 1:1 meetings. Frequent meetings with individual team members will keep you informed of the work and progress of your team member. It will also make them feel valued, listened to and cared for and provide them with the opportunity to seek guidance, raise a concern and ask a question with ease.


b. Collaboration

i. Avoid creating a cultural rift between those in the office and those at home. Demonstration of your support of the flexible working environment and inclusion will reduce the possibility of developing a class system, one in which remote workers are viewed as second-class citizens.


ii. Pick the best person for the task – whether they’re remote or in the office. Not only will you get the right person for the job, but you’ll be building trust by showing that it is one’s work that determines advancement and opens up opportunities, not location.


iii. Engage your team in brainstorming and decision making. With your team, ensure everyone is on the same page regarding the objective criteria (data) on which a decision is made. This will remove any question that one person’s ideas are more valuable than another simply because they work in the office.


c. Community

i. Build community. Find ways to minimize the perceived distance and differences within the team through shared experiences, such as group projects or Zoom happy hours. Ask your team for their ideas. Community goes a long way toward employee engagement, productivity and retention.


ii. Run inclusive meetings. The manner in which meetings are conducted is crucial in promoting diversity of thought, perceived equity (such as having equal opportunities for joining highly visible work groups, receiving feedback that could improve the quality of work that could then lead to promotion or career progression) and inclusion.


- Create an agenda prior to the meeting clearly stating the meeting’s purpose and what will be covered; feel free to ask participants for contributions to the agenda’s discussion points.

- Think carefully about who should attend the meeting, ensuring all are accounted for regardless of whether they are working in the office or remotely; take care not to inadvertently leave someone out.

- Distribute the agenda in advance to allow all attendees equal opportunities to gather their thoughts. Identify an allocated spot to share them in the meeting.

- Finally, conduct meetings with all faces visible, on screen for remote workers, and foster participation during meetings from all.


iii. Be inclusive when evaluating employees for promotions or other career-progression opportunities. Get to know your talent – their skills, motivations, aspirations. Use this information to ensure all employees are included in key conversations about progression or career advancement opportunities, regardless of where they work.


Inclusion, as well as the elimination of unconscious bias, need to be “consciously embedded into how we work regardless of where we work.” (McKinsey, 2021) Let's remember to think people first, not location.


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