The impact of proximity bias on performance management

 

Anna Rasmussen

CEO & Founder

Insight author headshot

As we predicted, remote working is here to stay, but the nature of how and when we work from home has shifted. Once lockdown restrictions started to ease, some people missed the buzz and companionship (not to mention ergonomic chairs) of the office and couldn’t wait to return. Others found that eradicating the commute made them more productive, happier and healthier. Then there were those that realised they could, in fact, have the best of both worlds: a mix of office and home-working that maximised their wellbeing and workplace productivity.

But there’s something that threatens to pull out that pin, and most managers haven’t even realised it yet.

We’re talking about proximity bias

‘Proximity bias’ in its truest form is an unconscious bias whereby we favour the things and people that are close to us, and undervalue those that aren’t. In the workplace, it’s an issue that has been affecting remote workers and their managers since the invention of the laptop.

True to the phrase out of sight, out of mind, remote workers have long battled against perceptions that they are less reliable, less hard working and less team-oriented than their office-base counterparts, even when statistical evidence has proven otherwise. Two different surveys both found that around two-thirds of employees said that they’re more productive when working from home.

If proximity bias is leading managers to pay more attention to the requirements of an employee in the office instead of someone working remotely, it’s also skewing their vision when it comes to performance assessment.

 

Why is it harmful?

For many reasons. Thanks to proximity bias, remote workers have often been unfairly overlooked for promotion, receive more negative feedback and become isolated from their team mates.

Even before Covid, proximity bias impacted talent attraction and retention. Now, as hybrid work has become mainstream, the stakes are even higher. For most businesses, long-term hybrid working will not be a choice: making it a success will be the difference between thriving and failing in the years to come.

Right now, though, the biggest threat to performance management is that it can drive a wedge between managers and employees, impacting negatively on collaboration, communication and productivity and ultimately skew the performance process.

Collaboration

Back in 2008, a study found that hybrid work groups are less cohesive than fully remote or in-person teams. It’s thought that the mix of working situations interfered with group identity. When everyone is working from home, they are all in the same boat. When some are in the office, and others aren’t, it can create an ‘us/them’ mentality – and it’s important for managers to deal with this swiftly and quickly.

 

Communication

Remote and hybrid workers need to be kept in the loop just as much as those in the office, a quick office announcement excludes those that are working from home. If employees are left out the loop regularly, over time this will build up to them working towards very different goals and objectives. If remote workers struggle with inconsistent working practices and miscommunication, it skews the performance process and leads us directly onto this next point...

Productivity

You want to create a business that is effectively a level playing field, and this means taking actions to make sure you are including others, no matter where they are. If several barriers hinder effective remote work, say for example over-reliance on email, insufficient or blurred communication and a lack of feeling part of an effective team, then productivity is bound to take a hit and so will overall business performance.

What can you do about it?

The benefits that working remotely brings to one person’s productivity are balanced by the perks that office-based work gives to another: by instilling one-to-ones and a people-centric approach to your business’s performance management, you can better connect your managers and employees, effectively breaking down unconscious proximity bias. Enabling everyone to recognise each other as individuals that are bring value to the business, whether they’re in the next desk or another county.

To learn how to dispel proximity bias from your performance management processes by better understanding individual employee needs and drivers to enable effective one-to-ones.

Download OpenBlend’s guide today