We’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about what our post Covid workplace will be like. We’ve wrestled with much flexibility we should offer, should we change our contracts, should we go for set days at home or offer personal choice and how our office layout might need to change. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere, there’s a new dilemma on the horizon, how do we reduce proximity bias?
Now, as anyone who doesn’t work in Head Office knows already, proximity bias is an actual THING. If you are someone who has frequent contact with the leaders and spends more time in the office being ‘seen’, chances are, you will receive preferential treatment when it comes to promotion and are likely to be seen as a higher performing employee.
If we are serious about continuing to offer genuine flexibility around where and when people work – and why wouldn’t we be – then we need to tackle proximity bias. If we don’t, then you know exactly what will happen. For all of our commitment statements about offering flexible working, our leaders in the office will become a kind of siren, gradually drawing people back there with them.
So how to tackle this issue of proximity bias. First up, the basics. It’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.
Next, help managers to manage through outcomes and results, rather than task supervision. One technique that might help is the so-called ‘tight-loose-tight’ management approach. This is where really tight and clear outcomes are identified up front – then the manager is encouraged to back off and loosen up around exactly HOW these outcomes are delivered – followed by getting tight again around accountability. The idea is to give managers the assurance they need that results will be delivered without them needing to observe the work being done.
Thirdly, we can challenge proximity bias at the point where a manager might be about to choose someone who they see everyday, over someone who works remotely. EY have implemented something they call ‘PTR’. This involves leaders checking with each other whether their choice is ‘a Preference, a Tradition or a Requirement’, ie: ‘did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because the person traditionally in this role has always been based near to you, or because they genuinely meet the requirements for the role?’ It might not eliminate proximity bias, but it at least makes them pause and think.
And finally, the most significant thing you can do to reduce the bias of proximity – make sure your leaders are working flexibly too. If leaders are always in then we will continue to imply ‘BUT, THE IMPORTANT WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ then all of your brilliant flexible working plans will gradually fade away. Employees will know without being told that to be valued, to be recognised and to get on, then they have to be seen. You could adapt PepsiCo’s mantra of ‘Leaders Leave Loudly’. Leaders there make a point of letting their teams know that they are working from home or leaving the office early to pick up their kids or go to the gym. If our leaders role model the new hybrid, it will happen.