Addressing the Top Risk of Hybrid and Remote Work: Proximity Bias

How can we create strong culture with a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote workers?

A January 2022 Slack survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that the top concern for executives about hybrid and remote work is the risk of “proximity bias.” Namely, 41 percent feel worried about the risk for work culture from the prospect of inequality between office-centric, hybrid and fully remote employees. 

The difference in time spent in the office leads to risks ranging from decreased career mobility for those who spend less facetime with their supervisor to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work. Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage in the future of work need to use research-based best practices by creating a culture of “Excellence From Anywhere” to address these risks. This cultural best practice is based on guidance for leaders at 17 pioneering organizations I helped guide in developing and implementing effective methods for a company culture fit for the future of work.  

Protect from Proximity Bias via the “Excellence From Anywhere” Strategy 

So why haven’t leaders addressed the obvious risks associated with proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences in time spent in the office. 

Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose. You might have heard of black swans: low-probability, high-impact risks. Well, the opposite kind of risks are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blindspots. The scientific name for these blindspots is cognitive biases, which impede effective decision-making and cause leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model. 

Many organizations may need some employees to come in full-time. For example, one of my clients is a high-tech manufacturing company with over 25,000 employees. It needs many employees to be on the factory floor. 

Others may need to come in on a hybrid schedule: some R&D staff innovate better if they access equipment in the labs. Some others may have team leaders that want them to come in once a week to facilitate team cohesion, even if they can do all their work remotely. And still other employees have team leaders that permit them to do full-time remote work. 

Such differences over flexibility have the potential to create tension between employees. Addressing these potential cultural divides is vital to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have-nots” from developing, as well as pre-empting career-limiting facetime differences with supervisors. 

Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee’s work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible. 

Address Resentments and Career Limitations Due to Proximity Bias 

The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation.  

By valuing collaboration and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter. 

This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite. 

But what about facetime with the boss? Addressing this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes performance evaluation that takes place quarterly or annually to low-stakes, one-on-one check-ins that take place weekly or bi-weekly.  

Supervisees agree on three to five weekly or bi-weekly performance goals with their supervisor. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report—usually about under a page in length—to their boss outlining how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation and proposed goals for next week. 24 hours before the meeting, the supervisor provides a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.  

At the one-on-one, the supervisor coaches the supervisee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the goals for next time and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation. 

This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting mitigates concerns about facetime, since everyone gets at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses the underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer. 

Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee morale, engagement and retention, which are so important in this time of the Great Resignation

Excellence from Anywhere

The transition to a hybrid and remote work culture in the post-pandemic recovery leads to the risk of resentment over flexibility and worries over career standing due to facetime with the boss. Addressing such risks requires creating a work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.”

Using research-based best practices reframes the conversation to help everyone focus on pulling together to achieve shared business objectives and prioritizing deliverables rather than where and how you work. It also involves transitioning from traditional quarterly or annual performance evaluations to brief one-on-ones that occur weekly or bi-weekly, giving all employees personalized facetime with the boss and a constant knowledge of where they stand at all times, thereby alleviating career mobility concerns.

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