Avoid the Unconscious Proximity Bias Frustrating Your Hybrid Team
Like most forms of accidental discrimination, proximity bias is tricky. Human-centered managers don’t set out to treat remote workers differently. And yet, it’s easy to screw up in subtle, often unconscious ways.
Sure, there will always be old-school managers like Elon Musk, whose bias towards in-person work is deliberate and vocal—requiring employees to spend “a minimum of forty hours in a physical office a week.”
And certainly, if you’re running the company, it’s your prerogative to define your culture and make the rules. You’ll attract and retain the employees who resonate with your approach and deal with the fallout. And everyone also has the choice of whether to work in a particular culture or go elsewhere.
But let’s be real. Until recently, Musk’s approach would not be so shocking or controversial. Many big companies, including Verizon where I (Karin) worked for two decades, were quite clear that being in-person mattered—a lot.
To be promoted past a certain level you had to relocate to headquarters. In fact, our 9 box talent review forms had a defining check mark about relocation. During the years I worked remotely, I obtained lifetime Titanium status at my favorite hotel brand. Just like many of my peers.
Showing up in person was expected and noted. Everyone knew if you couldn’t pull that off, you were slow-tracking your career.
Not today. Most companies with similar histories are proactively undoing their explicit proximity bias—making a complete 180-degree shift on such policies. They know that attracting and retaining the best talent requires flexibility.
The New Challenge for Hybrid Teams
And it’s tricky. Because those policies and attitudes were there for a reason— proximity bias is real and it’s challenging to overcome.
We both have life-long friendships with people we worked with years ago. It’s hard to imagine that level of trust without all the shared meals, experiences, and impromptu mishaps and adventures.
Most people will bond better over a real lunch than even the best virtual taco party. It’s human nature to turn to the co-worker in the cube next door when you need help or advice. It takes effort to remember all that your co-worker three time zones away brings to the table. Without a proactive approach to managing proximity bias, inertia wins, and your out-of-arms-distance team members can feel (and be) excluded.
Of course, they might not share their concerns about proximity bias. Or even know to call it that. They stay silent for fear their complaints will be met with a call to spend more time in person.
What is Proximity Bias?
Proximity bias is giving intentional or unintentional disparate treatment to the people closest to you in geography or time zone. Proximity bias, like all biases, is an instinctual and often unconscious response when making decisions. It’s a tendency to collaborate more with people we trust, without stopping to consider why we trust them more than others. It can happen from leader to team member when a manager favors those they’re physically around. And, less frequently discussed or challenged is the proximity bias that happens among team members who have a less formal obligation for inclusion.
Examples of Proximity Bias
So, how does proximity bias show up in hybrid teams? Here are a few examples.
- You need to make a decision quickly so you call a quick huddle in the office to get a few ideas. You don’t circle back to include your remote team members.
- You’re running a meeting with two-thirds of the team in person and a few people on zoom. You’ve shared the slides on the screen, so now the zoom attendees are tiny little squares so it’s difficult to read their facial expressions. After a while, your remote team members just turn off their cameras— because, why bother?
- Your boss flies in for an executive visit. You do a great job hosting a town hall meeting and a Q&A that includes your remote team members. That evening the in-person team goes out for a few beers and that’s where the conversation starts to get real.
- You give the special project to the people you trust the most, without considering what’s underneath that deeper relationship.
- When you go on vacation, you default to an in-person team member acting for you, because it’s “easier to navigate” the politics in person if something comes up.
- Your in-office team stays after your hybrid meeting to brainstorm ideas.
Practical Approaches to Being More Inclusive in Your Hybrid Team
Just like the other work you’re doing on diversity, equity and inclusion, overcoming proximity bias takes deliberate focus and practical, tactical approaches.
- Talk about proximity bias with your team
- Be thoughtful and deliberate in your one-on-ones
- Lead your meetings from both sides of the hybrid table
- Be purposeful with your time together
- Measure it
1. Talk about proximity bias WITH your team.
Yes, your corporate policies and resources matter. Technology matters. We applaud all the important time and effort being invested to find systemic ways to overcome proximity bias. What happens at a team level also matters. One of the best things you can do to eliminate proximity bias is to help your managers have these conversations well with their teams.
For example, you could start the conversation like this.
“We want to create an inclusive work environment where we respect, value, and support every team member no matter where they choose to work. What’s working now? What’s getting in the way?”
Spend time communicating about how you communicate. Our free 6 Habits of Highly Effective Hybrid and Virtual Teams assessment can be a useful way to start this conversation. During this conversation, asking your remote team members (with sincere, open curiosity) about their experiences, challenges, and what’s missing will help you surface opportunities you wouldn’t be aware of otherwise. The Own the U.G.L.Y. framework is one way you can structure these conversations.
2. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your one-on-ones
There’s no better way to know what’s really on your employees’ hearts and minds than a truly great approach to one-on-ones, taking time for creating clarity and removing roadblocks, building genuine connection, and proactively asking them for their ideas.
With that said, one trap that’s easy to fall into in hybrid teams is to have too much of the conversation flow through you, and not enough collaboration among the team. Look for ways to have your hybrid team members work together on special projects, brainstorm ideas, or solve problems—be deliberate to pair up people who work in different locations.
One of the very best ways to build shared history, trust, and connection is by collaborating on work that matters.
3. Lead your meetings from both sides of the hybrid table
If you primarily lead meetings from a physical office with remote members dialing in, try leading your meeting from a remote location from time to time while others are still gathered in the conference room.
This was such an important experiment for us as we were refining our hybrid team leadership programs (where some participants were in person with us and others were dialing in). We quickly learned how important subtle issues were like camera and mic position, how you take notes, and what happens when you share slides to breakout rooms (note; that can make it very hard to see the people and can diminish connection).
It’s important to experience the frustrations that your team members may be afraid to speak up and mention.
It can also help to rotate responsibility for facilitating your meetings to a different member of your team each time and equipping all your team members with the basics of remote team facilitation.
Giving yourself the experience of remote participation will also help you be mindful of creating a common, shared experience (eg: avoiding side-bar conversations or inside jokes that don’t include everyone – this is one reason many hybrid team leaders move to a “one screen-one face” approach, even for those in person.)
4. Be purposeful with your time together
Whether you are gathering in person from time to time or planning a hybrid special event, be deliberate about designing your time for maximum ROI. Being in back-to-back virtual meetings is exhausting. And remotely participating in a poorly designed virtual event can feel like you’re just watching bad TV.
If it’s feasible to bring your team together in person, consider the most important work to accomplish during that time (e.g. strategic planning, raising ideas, sharing concerns, building trust, gaining exposure to executives, navigating tough performance conversations). And if you require in-person days, ask your team what would make that time most worth the commute.
Another proximity bias to consider is the proximity of time zones.
We’ve been working with some global teams that only have a two-hour window when any of their schedules can reasonably overlap. They’ve learned to use that time deliberately for their most important synchronous communication, and then establish careful norms and response time expectations for their asynchronous interaction.
5. Measure it
If you’re serious about overcoming proximity bias, you need to know when it’s happening. Just like other unconscious biases, it’s important to measure behavior.
One easy way to do this is to keep a list of each member of your team and track your interactions. For example, you might track the time and duration of one-on-ones, informal conversations, and other meetings. Then, look or the patterns.
If you’re a senior HR or operations leader, you can also track as part of your DE&I measures. For example, comparing data about promotions, compensation, or special projects of employees working in a physical office and those working from home.
Building highly effective virtual and hybrid teams takes time. You’re going to learn what works best by staying close to your team and iterating along the way. If a team member raises concerns about proximity bias take that conversation seriously. Talk about practical ways to remedy the situation.
Share your ideas and keep the conversation going.