Hybrid working and the proximity bias: what does it mean for women?

Our working world is one of many crosscurrents. With lockdowns as we know them in the past and the new working year having rolled right in, organisations around us are inching back towards in-office working. Some gradually, some tidally — all of which among the undercurrent of a global shift towards increasingly flexible working.

We’re no stranger to how hybrid working shapes equitable outcomes. Especially for women.

There’s immense benefits to this, but it also carries potential for adverse effects. Especially for women.

So what do these two opposing tides of change really mean for women’s advancement in this post-lockdown era? Is the ‘Zoom ceiling’ a new glass ceiling? Will the new way of working entrench or could it help eliminate presenteeism as we know it?

First, we need to understand the proximity bias and presenteeism in its pandemic-specific iteration.

Proximity Bias: Post-Pandemic Edition

Digital bias, distance bias, proximity bias: the names for this brand of presenteeism are vast, yet the definition simple. Simply put, it’s the idea that people unintentionally favour employees who are closest to them rather than further away. In the hybrid ways of working, these will be those who spend more time at the office: those who arrive earlier, leave later and spend more time in the same space as key decision makers — down to the same parts of the offices, and the same branches as them.

Virtually, it might be those who have most contact with key power players: via email, communication channels or even the odd phone call. Or who’s faces and voices pop up in Zoom speaker view and who’s microphones spend less time muted.

Is it perception or is your brain taking shortcuts?

Unconscious bias plays a large part: our brains have an ‘unconscious tendency to pay more attention to events and people that are nearest to us in both time and space,’ shares Toptal in their Future of Work findings. Humans are wired to cognitive strategy known as heuristics, shares Raconteur, as mental shortcuts to help make efficient decisions.

“You perceive your judgement to be logical, but because you’re using shortcuts, it might lead you to the wrong assumption.”

There’s no shortage of maxims that speak to this in our everyday zeitgeist: being out of sight, out of mind and parables of the squeaky wheel, to name a familiar few. As casually embedded as they may be, there’s ground for all of us to check these internal biases. We use “previous experiences, or biases, to assist our judgments about things,” reminds Raconteur, “although this helps us reach conclusions more quickly, that doesn’t mean we always end up with the right answer.

You perceive your judgement to be logical, but because you’re using shortcuts, it might lead you to the wrong assumption,” shares occupational psychologist Ali Shalfrooshan with Raconteur.

What’s at stake for women?

A culture where hybrid and remote workers are overlooked, unrewarded and subsequently unproductive is at stake if organisations don’t set the tone for a proximity-bias-free workplace. This includes hybrid employees feeling their career trajectory and earnings potential are compromised, the loss of top talent, feeling disconnected from the wider team shares our Partners EY and Toptal.

From a managerial direction, this might involve ‘distant’ employees being overlooked for their input, involvement in career-advancing opportunities — whether it be as simple as joining in a new task or meeting through to promotions — or being considered for projects, shares our Partners

Additionally, with communication and visibility smaller and more segmented, there’s a likelihood that hybrid workers could be simply seen as less valuable. “It’s not so much the concept of office/not office but seen/not seen,” says specialist Ali Shalfrooshan. “The proximity bias that people will be dealing with is ‘if I do not see your output I do not value you’. That’s the bias I see playing out.”

“It’s not so much the concept of office/not office but seen/not seen. The proximity bias that people will be dealing with is ‘if I do not see your output I do not value you”

For women, who are more likely to opt for WFH, the consequences could steepen. “80% of women, compared with 69% of men, rank the option of working remotely as one of the most important factors when considering a new employer,” reports Raconteur.

If we add this into the other biases women face in the workplace, the motherhood penalty, it’s clear how pervasive the proximity bias may be to set women back. Pair that with the bigger picture of how the pandemic is affecting working women — with

“80% of women, compared with 69% of men, rank the option of working remotely as one of the most important factors when considering a new employer”

Managers: set the tone, change the dial

Of course, the key lies with the managers, leaders and power players of organisations to stamp out the embers that flame proximity biases and cultures of presenteeism. After the initial step of recognising this bias exists in each and every one of us, there are plenty of steps you can take — no matter your place in your organisation:

  • Dial up the soft skills:

    Those in leadership roles must dial-up their soft skills to maximise their performance and that of their hybrid teamshares Global Women Partners, EY. Lead hybrid teams with empathy, compassion and care and an investment in the overall personal wellbeing of the team.

  • Allow Everyone Flexible Work Schedules:

    if everyone has the same options and access to ways of working, the playing field will be hugely levelled. Toptal shares that giving both “in-office and remote office employees the freedom to define their schedules will minimise distance bias in hybrid environments by not prioritising one work schedule over another.” Additionally, this flexibility also challenges the assumptions leaders have about presenteeism—if you’re allowing in-office workers to have more flexibility in their schedules, you’ll be less inclined to make negative assumptions about the engagement level of remote workers relative to on-site workers.

  • Make All Meetings Virtual Friendly:

    Toptal shares some tips: Leaders must also be proactive about inviting remote meeting attendees into the discussion. Don’t host team meetings at the same time each week if they’re outside of normal business hours for some employees. Instead, rotate meeting times so as not to burden remote employees with too many early or late sessions.

  • Cocreate a communication charter:

    Involve your people in shaping how the team communicates; for instance, deciding what times or decisions require everyone to come together, share our Partners, EY.

  • Ensure an organisation-wide culture of exceptional communication:

    For example, schedule remote or in-person office hours that give people the opportunity to ask questions or express concerns. Branch out of your comfort zone and start using more asynchronous communication tools, share EY.

  • Actively Consider Remote Employees for Opportunities:

    Toptal shares that if there’s a “new opportunity that emerges for a team member, for example, a manager shouldn’t assign it based on a gut reaction or to someone closest in proximity; rather, they need to deliberately choose a person who is best equipped to tackle it.

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