How managers can keep proximity bias at bay amidst hybrid working

Employees who are frequently seen in office may end up being boss’ favourites.

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Globally, many tech firms have allowed their employees to work from home permanently even after the pandemic ends. A recent example is of Facebook, which has allowed its employees to work from home permanently for the next five to ten years. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook, will himself spend 50 per cent of his time working remotely for the next few years. Google has also allowed 20 per cent of its workforce to work entirely from home with 60 per cent of the workforce visiting the office three to four times a week. Similarly, Apple has given its workforce the flexibility to work from home two days a week.

This trend is not restricted to the IT and tech sectors alone, even Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages announced last year that people who are not required to work from office can opt to work from home permanently. However, with so much of flexibility there are bound to arise challenges that companies will be required to tackle at their workplaces.

“This is going to be a real problem for managers rather than the organisations. And it will come into play when things start getting normal and employers begin opening up workplaces in a staggered manner. The conversations and encounters that one has at the workplace are very informal. However, communication with remote employees is formal and scheduled, which makes a difference.”

Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group India

While all this talk of flexibility at the workplace sounds nice, this hybrid approach is not devoid of challenges. Some of them may have already started becoming visible by now. One such challenge is that of proximity bias.

Proximity bias is a phenomenon where managers and leaders start to favour or are more inclined towards people or employees, who are seen in the office or frequently visible or present in person.

Interactions with people who are working remotely are limited, formal and scheduled. In-office interactions, however, are very informal and they help build relations. Let us take a scenario where some employees are coming to the office and the rest are working remotely. The bosses and the managers will tend to favour them more in terms of performance reviews, benefits or other career development opportunities. While this often happens unconsciously, it is a problem nevertheless, which can lead to conflicts, bad employee experience and engagement at work.

Additionally, employees who visit the office will get the chance to be part of informal chats and unplanned encounters with the leaders. This can lead to favouritism at the workplace, while remote workers not getting enough face time with their managers and leaders may get sidelined.

“Leaders in the pharma industry never really advocated remote working before the COVID crisis emerged. However, now things have changed, but those with a negative mindset towards remote working will definitely give rise to proximity bias.” 

Ajay Tiwari, VP-HR, Lupin

“This is going to be a real problem for managers rather than the organisations. And it will come into play when things start getting normal and employers begin opening up workplaces in a staggered manner. The conversations and encounters that one has at the workplace are very informal. However, communication with remote employees is formal and scheduled, which makes a difference,” says Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group India.

Though we hope that the pandemic would have changed people’s perception, thought processes and mindsets, there will always be some people with a fixed mindset towards remote working. Such people may not promote the idea at all. They will favour those who are physically present at the workplace. “Leaders in the pharma industry never really advocated remote working before the COVID crisis emerged. However, now things have changed, but those with a negative mindset towards remote working will definitely give rise to proximity bias,” shares Ajay Tiwari, VP-HR, Lupin.

“The solution should be more culture driven, and organisations should strive to create a culture where only output level is recognised and appreciated, whether one is in the office or not. Good work has to be appreciated.Ultimately, I believe that companies who are output driven and measure performance only on the basis of output level, will not face the issue of proximity bias.”

Saba Adil, chief people officer, Raheja QBE

Post the second wave of the pandemic, which resulted in heavy loss of life in India, now the daily cases have started dipping in many cities. With talk of a third wave, however, companies will be cautious about opening offices in real time. With many having adopted a hybrid model and having asked a significant portion of the workforce to permanently work from home, chances of proximity biases arising are high.

How can firms deal with this malady?

Many steps can be taken to keep proximity bias at bay. Some of them are as follows:

Making roaster charts – Many HR leaders believe that it is very important to call team members to office in rotation. This will ensure that every employee gets equal amount of face time with their managers and other team mates. “This way, everybody in the office will get a fair chance to interact with the leaders and their managers,” shares Tiwari.

Fixing one day for 100 per cent attendance – Managers can also fix one day when all team members would be required to be present together at the office. Of course, it will be mandatory to follow all social distancing norms. “I have a friend who follows this practice at his firm. He has set aside one day of the week where he encourages all his teams members to come into the office and interact with him and each other,” says Sharma.

Communicating regularly – Team members should feel encouraged to have regular informal chats with their managers. While it is important that both managers and their team members share this responsibility, according to Sharma, the burden of this should lie majorly with the team members. “The onus of regular communication between the managers and team members should be largely shared by the team member rather than the manager,” believes Sharma.

Building a culture of appreciating only the output level – It is high time organisations focussed on appreciating the output level of employees, irrespective of where they are working from. With the future being so uncertain, it is important to build a culture that recognises the output and quality of work. This is the only permanent solution to avoid proximity bias. “The solution should be more culture driven, and organisations should strive to create a culture where only output level is recognised and appreciated, whether one is in the office or not. Good work has to be appreciated,” opines Saba Adil, chief people officer, Raheja QBE.

“Ultimately, I believe that companies who are output driven and measure performance only on the basis of output level, will not face the issue of proximity bias,” concludes Adil.

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