Workplace

Proximity bias is real. Returning to the office could make it worse.

"I don't think everybody back in the office is a solution."

Coffee mug next to laptop showing video call grid.

The best way to combat proximity bias may be to ditch the office altogether.

Photo: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

Remote work was a growing trend even before the pandemic thoroughly disrupted the office, but a year with everyone at home has left companies open to a wide range of opinions about what to do with it moving forward. Some companies, such as Google and Apple, are embracing remote work in a hybrid model, where some employees work from home part- or full-time while others put in more face time at the office. But where there's remote work, there's a big challenge for employees and managers alike: proximity bias.

Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts. That bias often looks like on-site employees having access to better perks and getting more time with executives, while remote employees may get left out of meetings, inadvertently silenced on calls and potentially even paid less than their co-located peers.

The best way to combat this bias, experts say, may be to ditch the office altogether.

'An administrative nightmare'

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, oversees the company's all-remote 1,300-person workforce. As someone who has worked in a hybrid environment before, he said, it's something that has had a negative impact on his career. Proximity bias, he added, should be the No. 1 concern for companies that implement hybrid work environments.

Either all co-located or all-remote are the easiest work environments for companies because there is only one playing field to manage, Murph said.

"Companies currently have one playing field to administrate," he told Protocol. "But if the office reopens and executives are first in the office, and even if they say you have a choice whether or not to come in, it sends a very powerful signal that the choice you have now is between your family or your career. You can go to your office and be seen or you can choose your family and go remote."

"If you have two playing fields to administer, they are inequitable by design," he said.

Murph laid out a scenario: Some companies offer on-site childcare at the office as a perk for employees. But what about the people who work from home? Should companies provide them with a stipend for childcare?

"It becomes this administrative nightmare, and that's just one tiny example that proves the point," he said. "And wherever the execs are, that's where the power is going to be. Getting rid of [all] the offices ensures a more equitable type of environment."

Cate Huston, an engineering director at DuckDuckGo, oversees a remote team as part of DuckDuckGo's distributed workforce. She told Protocol she similarly has doubts about a hybrid model and does not think it can be equitable — at least not in the way companies are currently approaching it.

"There's the issue of who has a relationship with who," Huston said. "Who is seen to be doing this and doing that. Is it implied that people are not taking work seriously if people don't want to come to the office every day? Unless there is a lot of intentionality behind [hybrid], then I think it is going to be really hard."

Hybrid workplaces are breeding grounds for inequity

"Whoever is going to have access to leadership is going to be the winner," Nicole Sanchez, founder and CEO at DEI consulting firm Vaya, and former VP of social impact at GitHub, told Protocol. "If you have the flexibility in your life to show up however leadership is showing up, you have a leg up. And that is predictable along demographic lines," especially racial lines.

The pandemic disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx and other racial minorities in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Atlanta, for example, Black patients with COVID-19 were more likely to be hospitalized than white patients, according to CDC data collected in March and April 2020.

"They're also the ones who've been carrying the majority of the burden and they're also the ones who disproportionately live farther from the office," Sanchez said. "You have more people that they're supporting and so the promise of being able to not come in seems like a dream ... But pretty soon, if you're not back in the office, you're going to be forgotten."

Sanchez referred to a study she came across some years ago in business school that demonstrated a correlation between salary ranges based on proximity to the CEO in the office. The employees who sat closer to the CEO generally had higher salaries, Sanchez said. Other research found that remote workers may receive lower performance evaluations and smaller raises compared to their in-office colleagues.

"Some of it is, 'I see that person all the time so I'm going to call them into this meeting,'" she said. "And some of it is status indication. Like, the literal closer you are to the CEO, the more you are perceived to have power."

That's partly why Sanchez doesn't like open-office floor plans. Open-office plans can be deeply inequitable, she said, and can easily create a nexus of power.

"White supremacy loves a ranking system," she said. "And when you create a nexus of power — you can do it and just be honest about it or diffuse it by not allowing proximity to be as available as an indicator or as a trigger for bias."

Making remote work

Transitioning fully to remote work may eliminate the potential for proximity bias, but it still has its own caveats. Fully remote work environments exacerbated some types of harm to employees during the pandemic, according to a recent report from diversity and inclusion organization Project Include.

A number of factors led to the harm, which took the form of harassment, hostility and life stressors, Project Include CEO Ellen Pao told Protocol.

Employees are "working more and because they're working more, they feel more anxious," Pao said. "And because they're being harassed, they feel more anxious. It's just this bad cycle. And this bad set of circumstances has created this remote environment that is incredibly toxic and anxiety-inducing."

Meanwhile, the "trauma from the increased knowledge of so much police brutality and racism in our society and environment," the deadly coronavirus and a variety of climate crises throughout 2020 "created this really bad set of conditions," she said.

It also didn't help that some managers struggled to adapt to a remote work environment, Pao added.

"They just became a lot worse," she said. "They don't know how to manage that lack of proximity."

Some managers drastically increased the number of check-in meetings with employees, Pao observed, where some workers reported managers checking in on them five times a day: "So you have no space or time for yourself."

Some companies similarly kept their regular meetings schedule as workforces went remote but just moved everything online, Huston said.

"If you're still relying on meetings to get things done, then I would say that's the first mistake," Huston said. "Shifting to more written communication is the first thing that makes the most difference."

On her team, Huston said, employees can use the bulk of their week working whenever they want — but everyone does need at least three hours of overlap with the rest of the team at some point in the week.

"We try to make synchronous time requirements as minimum as possible. But everyone will need to be flexible and considerate of everyone else," she said. "You have to be considerate of your teammates."

Interrupting proximity bias

The best way to address proximity bias may be for companies to be 100% remote. For companies that do adopt a hybrid approach, Sanchez recommends employers at least be clear about the expectations for coming into the office.

"If you leave people to guess, all they'll do is follow leadership," she said. "Demographically, we know who leadership is [white and male]. They tend to have more autonomy and flexibility in their lives and will show up when they want and not show up when they don't want to, without any rhyme or reason or fluid schedule."

Sanchez suggests leaders "really spell it out for people." It's also important that leaders follow the rules they set for their employees, she added.

"It's the same thing with taking unlimited time off," she said. "It's that same part of our brain that can't quite wrap itself around flexibility. Where if I take the day off but the CEO keeps bragging about how he grinds through the weekend, I don't know what's right. So leadership has to actually adhere to those rules."

Companies should also find time to teach people how to have meetings when some employees are in the office and others are remote, she said. Companies could have large screens that show the videos of remote workers or require in-office workers to sign on to a virtual conference room from their desks in solidarity with remote workers.

"When we're all remote we all at least have equal-ish access — not equitable — but equal-ish access to the meeting," she said. "We're all a rectangle in this meeting. It's got a mute button and an unmute button. But once we've changed the environment and you're in a hybrid situation, decision-making power and influence favors the people who are co-located."

Quora transitioned into a remote-first company in part because of the potential biases that come with a hybrid work environment. Quora held onto its Mountain View headquarters, but turned it into a co-working space for employees. Still, employees who work out of the office are required to take team meetings on video, and none of the leadership teams are located in the office. Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo also committed to not coming into the office more than once a month.

Working remotely in an office requires some retraining of the brain, but it's still a hard habit to break, Murph said. Companies that take this route may want to remove whiteboards from the wall, he said, and "send as many signals as possible that the office isn't the center of power."

It's also worthwhile, Murph said, for companies to hire a head of remote operations.

"It needs to be someone's job to create equitability and work to make the workplace inclusive and work against proximity bias," he said.

Sanchez has a strong preference toward entirely remote workplaces, she said, in part because "there isn't the jockeying for literal proximity." She added that employee engagement, job satisfaction, retention and psychological safety all improve when workers can control their own environments.

"I don't think everybody back in the office is a solution," she said. "I think that Pandora's box has been opened on that and there's no putting it back into where we all go 9-5 into an office. That's not a real reality."

Murph agreed, saying that "you'll never get that genie back in the bottle for knowledge workers." Now that workers know what it's like to work remotely, companies will be hard-pressed in their attempts to convince employees to come back on any sort of regular cadence.

"What we're seeing is the great democratization of power," he said. "The transfer of power from corporations to people. Everybody gets that and companies would be wise to get on board sooner than later."

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