Is proximity bias an issue?

It’s fair to say that coming up with a hybrid “policy” is pretty tricky. We have been helping companies do this even before the pandemic and there is never a “one size fits all” solution.

So while it’s now far more mainstream for many people to enjoy the flexibility of not going into the office 5 days a week, is there potentially a dark side to this?

Yes. Actually there are potentially quite a few dark sides if not managed correctly, but in this blog we’ll focus on proximity bias.

So what is proximity bias?

Research supports that we tend to find the people we see more often as more likeable. In psychology there is a phenomenon called the “mere-exposure effect” which means that as something or someone becomes more familiar, we develop a preference for them.

The proximity bias takes this further and I like the definition in this Forbes article states that:

“…those who are physically closer to company leaders enjoy outsized influence and advancement opportunities relative to those who are hybrid or fully remote.”

Is this really a thing in the post-COVID world? Well it’s probably early days in the research scheme of things to really quantify just how much of a thing this is. However, based on phenomenon like the “mere exposure effect” which dates back to the late 1800s, intuitively it feels like this could be significant.

So who should have the accountability to deal with this? As always with accountability, we believe everyone has part to play by doing their bit.

Obviously leaders need to ensure that the right people are included in conversations and decision-making, even if they are not privy to the random corridor run-ins that occur when working in the same office.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not saying that the antidote to this is everyone passively sitting in endless virtual meetings just to feel included. But are there certain lines of communication that should be open to everyone regardless of where they work.

Does this present a case for teams to have mandated days to work together in the office? Possibly. And if your office has already mandated days to work together, these concerns could very legitimately add further justification for that position.

At NEP we always say that your career is your responsibility, so people also need to take responsibility to make sure they are getting seen and noticed.

This is arguably also a case for having your camera on for virtual meetings. It’s a privilege to do work which doesn’t require physically being in a particular location. If you are actively participating in a meeting from the comfort of elsewhere, and now what we know about proximity bias, surely it makes sense to be very keen to at least get your camera on?

Personally, I haven’t yet come across anyone who was fully present and adding value in a meeting who had their camera off. But maybe that’s just me?

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