Company Culture

How does proximity bias impact remote workers?

Can hybrid or fully remote work hurt your chances of getting ahead at your job? Slack's Sheela Subramanian says it shouldn't — and that employers should prioritize trust alongside flexibility.

Parenting while working remotely.

(Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels)

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced millions of people to remote work. Two years in, some businesses are ready to end it.

While there are, of course, some jobs that require more in-person presence than others, a lot of employers simply haven’t come around on remote work, especially when it’s coupled with the “F” word —  flexibility.

Sheela Subramanian is the coauthor of “How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams To Do The Best Work of Their Lives” and VP of Future Forum, a consortium backed by team messaging platform maker Slack. She focuses her work on redesigning how work is done to be more flexible, inclusive and connected.

Subramanian had a virtual sit-down with Technical.ly CEO Chris Wink for her Introduced conference keynote on proximity bias and remote work — and why promoting flexibility in location and time can result in a more productive, happier workplace.

What is proximity bias?

Simply put, it’s favoritism toward the people nearest to you, which in work settings could mean the coworker who shows up IRL to the same office as you do — and that favoritism is often unconscious.

This becomes an inclusion issue when you look at who is most likely to want to work in an office versus who wants the flexibility of hybrid, remote and flex-time work.

“The percentage of working moms who want location flexibility is at an all-time high, at 82%,” Subramanian said. “In general, we’re seeing an increased desire for flexibility from women with children as well as with working dads. We don’t want to be doing this commute every single day. It’s really important as as leaders to think about diversity, equity and inclusion when thinking about flexibility, because it goes hand in hand with future of work planning. We’re seeing among employees of color, working parents and caregivers and women who want flexible work.”

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In contrast, the VP said, the people most likely to want to work in the office every day are executives — typically men whose voices tend to dominate corporate culture.

“Because of that divide, there is a risk of proximity bias and favoritism toward an employee who was working in the office,” she said. “And what we don’t want to see is that those who are getting promoted, those who are getting those stretch opportunities, are the [primarily] ones who are in the office.”

Leaders should be aware of these biases, especially when considering that they can’t literally see all the work remote employees are doing. Extending flexible working conditions to everyone can help.

Workers can thrive with guided flexibility

Subramanian knows the idea of flexibility scares some employers. Some execs might imagine a Wild West of employees working at all hours, sans any coordination or communication.

However, she said, “what most people actually want is guided autonomy or flexibility in a framework, so they want someone to say, ‘All right, our teams are going to come together these three hours, Monday through Thursday, and those are the three hours our core team collaborates to discuss really important topics to make decisions.’ But outside of that block, you’re welcome to do your focus work when works best for you.”

That means allowing, and even encouraging, employees to set breaks to spend some time with the kids after school, to walk the dog or just to decompress.

Which is not to say that flexible work doesn’t have boundaries.

“We say people need to set their own boundaries, but if they’re getting messages from their executive at 11 p.m., it’s very hard to set them,” she said. “So, as an example are, if you’re going to be sending a message after 5 p.m., do it as a scheduled email that will send the next day.”

But flexibility requires trust

Above all, if flexibility is going to work, leaders need to trust their employees.

“[Lack of trust] is the reason we’re seeing such mandates to return back into the office five days a week,” Subramanian said. “Leaders are not actually asking them employees what they want. 66% of leaders are not including their broader set of employees in these conversations around returning to the office and future work planning. So much of the conversation has been that people need to come back because ‘I need to know that they’re working,’ or ‘People need to come back because they’re not responding to my messages quickly enough.’

“The last two years have proven that people can work on their terms,” she said. “We’ve seen businesses thrive during this time. So it’s really important for us to shift from we need people in the office because we need to see that they’re working to let’s ask for their feedback.”

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