Overcoming Proximity Bias When Working From Home

February 2, 2023

By Claire Rutkowski

Hybrid work office or home as various job location places tiny person concept.

Are you working from home as you read this, or in an office? Are you promoting in-office work for your team? Or are you allowing for full flexibility? As a worker yourself, do you prefer working in the office or working from home? Do you have a choice? The first quarter of 2023 will mark three years since the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed where, how, and why we work. The pandemic and its ensuing lockdown proved that a physical office is not required to effectively get work done.

I have personally had the luxury of working in a hybrid manner for much of my 20-year career. I started out as a consultant to an engineering firm with a 2-hour commute each way, and the only way I would commit to a Chicago downtown gig was with one day a week at home on Wednesdays just to break up all that travel. Over the years, I gradually added a day a week here or there until I was full-time working from home.

I was lucky. Historically, managers at professional services firms have valued face-to-face work environments, believing that in-office workers are more productive than their remote counterparts. And yet research from Stanford in 2015 proved that remote workers are 15% more productive than their in-office colleagues. This was confirmed by a 2021 study by Mercer, in which 98% of employers said productivity was the same or better since the pandemic started. As hybrid work models continue to evolve, issues of proximity bias – the belief that people closer to us are viewed more favorably – persist.

Harvard Business Review recently reported on a survey of 800 supervisors conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Of those 800 supervisors surveyed: 67% said remote workers are more replaceable than on-site workers, 42% admitted to forgetting about remote workers when assigning work, and most felt on-site workers are more productive. These perceptions and issues are not unique to consulting firms. They are everywhere. Surprisingly, this study was done in a post-pandemic environment, so while we might think that the pandemic experience changed perceptions, it did not change everyone’s.

PROVIDING AN INCLUSIVE CULTURE: Helping Colleagues Succeed

Professional service firms are struggling with resource restrictions and diversity challenges. We have acute shortages that have made some firms turn down work because their backlog is already so high. They simply cannot keep up with demand. Proximity bias makes diversity challenges even worse. Already disenfranchised colleagues who may experience micro-aggressions or direct discrimination at work are more likely to want to avoid the situation by working from home, so any male-dominated, traditional industry must pay particular attention to proximity bias.

There Are Things We Can Do to Overcome Proximity Bias!

As an Individual – If you are working in a hybrid or fully ‘remote’ way, there are a few things you can do to ensure you remain visible and hopefully avoid or minimize proximity bias:

  1. Make sure your manager knows what you are working on. Do not leave them guessing. Throughout my career, I have used a quick email on a Friday to highlight key accomplishments, any issues that came up, and what the following week looks like. This is not meant to include every detail of everything you have done, nor is it meant to be self-promoting. I call it the ‘no surprises’ email. It is a way for me to make sure my boss knows what I am doing in case they get asked. It also helps ensure we are aligned on priorities and workload.
  2. Meet with your manager as often as they want to and let them guide the camera-on, camera-off choice. There is no replacement for face-to-face connection, and while I find cameras exhausting when they are on all day long, they do have a place. Cameras enable you to notice body language and see facial expressions, so if your manager wants to use one, be ready to do the same.
  3. Be reachable or be clear on when you will be. While working from home allows for much greater flexibility and work-life balance, it can also create questions if your teammates cannot ever find you or you are always away on Teams or the equivalent. Try to stick to some set of core working hours whenever possible, and if you are going to be out for a couple of hours, it is worth putting an out-of-office notation on so people know when you will be reachable.
  4. Always remember that working from home is a luxury, not a right. Treat it with respect and appreciation. Make sure your background is appropriate and business-like, the camera is at the right level, and your lighting is good.

 

Cropped shot of a group of colleagues having a discussion in a modern office

Team leaders provide frequent communication to share objective goals across the team so everyone knows what everyone else is working on.

As a Leader – During AEC Advisor’s CEO Summit in October, I was part of a panel that discussed strategies for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the engineering consulting industry. And I spoke about addressing proximity bias on your team as the leader:

  1. Treat in-office and geographically dispersed teams the same. Be rigorous with your calendar. One-on-one time is SO important to engagement and connectivity. Managers must be sure to spend the same amount of time with some who is in Boise or Copenhagen as they do with their colleagues down the hall. This helps avoid the feeling of an A team and a B team.
  2. Create a sense of team. Managers should make sure they use the word ‘we’ a lot – and they need to mean it. ‘We’ needs to describe the entire team, not just those in the office.
  3. Create objective goals and share them across the team. If goals are transparent, everyone knows what everyone else is working on, and there is no quiet ‘wondering’ what the other person is doing. That is not to say that each of us needs to be in everyone else’s business but having stated goals helps everyone see how their part fits into the whole and reinforces the fact that everyone has a role to play in the greater good of corporate success.
  4. Have fun! We spend far too much time at work for it not to be fun. While it is easy to joke around over a pizza or plate of sandwiches when face-to-face in the office, this can be harder when the team is meeting over Teams or Zoom. Try to replicate the casual conversation by creating coffee hours (where people can just drop by), or by starting a meeting with everyone turning their camera around so you can see the view from their desk, or by grabbing an object within reach and describing it.

 

Engineering and consulting firms are fighting for resources. They have faced a wave of retirements and resignations and cannot afford NOT to facilitate and promote remote work models to draw on a much wider talent pool.

If firms are going to adapt and thrive in the new world of work and tap into a global talent pool, the signs and existence of proximity bias must be clearly acknowledged and quickly remedied. It is the right thing to do for your people and your organization.

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Claire Rutkowski is a Senior Vice President and the CIO Champion at Bentley Systems. During her more than 20-year career in the architecture, construction, and engineering (AEC) industry, Claire has received numerous awards, most recently the Top 80 CIOs You Should Know in 2020 and the Top 10 Most Inspiring Women Leaders in 2022. Claire uses her experience to advocate for CxOs at engineering firms and serve as a bridge between Bentley and its engineering accounts. Claire is also passionate about leadership, colleague engagement, and teamwork.