What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias and social bias are still new topics to most companies. They have become even more prevalent as many adapted to remote work, and a distributed workforce. As a result, companies are facing the reality that not all meetings are created equal.

The BBC describes proximity bias as “an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.” Once a matter of who is based at HQ and who works at a regional office, the definition of proximity in today’s business world is evolving. Remote work has added a new caveat to biases to which we can easily fall prey. And it would be a shame if, after two years of forced adjustment to working from home, those who choose to do so permanently are indirectly left out of big decisions. Unintentionally excluding remote workers from the most high-profile projects, insights, and relationship building, mitigates their chances to qualify for promotions, among other career and networking opportunities.

As with addressing most biases, the solution isn’t to avoid the challenge, but to determine the best path to solve those challenges in a systemic way. With proximity bias in the workplace, the solution is not to bring everyone back to the office, but to build guidelines and operating models that address this particular challenge, and account for distributed teams during both the big decision-making conversations and the small everyday interactions. Inclusion of remote workers sounds transparent – even “easy.” From personal and second-hand experience, though, I can attest to how hard it can be to eradicate proximity bias from our day to day. Having created job opportunities for hybrid or remote workers, we must now adapt our business models and decision-making processes to apply at an individual level, too.

How do cognitive biases in decision-making affect our companies?

All biases are a “by-product” of our processing limitations. To make decisions quickly, we generalize and simplify information to make it easier to process. As we simplify information with cognitive bias, we inevitably cut corners. Those corners are important for growing companies. They are also crucial for our employees’ growth: So much business is built on relationships that when companies adopt hybrid working models, team members who do not or cannot attend meetings in person are often disadvantaged.

An example of this took place recently while I happened to be in our office. My colleague was on a call with someone when the topic of conversation turned to a casual brainstorm. That brainstorm was going to impact a project I was involved in. Because I was in the room, I was able to proactively offer input. In this instance, I benefited from proximity bias. The initial “exclusion” was not rooted in bad intentions, but that pesky habit we all have of trying to do the best we can with the available resources.

Limited decision-making

By allowing proximity to influence decisions, companies might miss out on the best hire because that person was unable to attend an in-person interview.

Similarly, a team might not have brought a key problem solver to the table because of the individual’s inability to attend a physical meeting – and the team went ahead with said meeting. As a result, projects move more slowly because mistakes are made and misunderstandings arise. These are common examples of how cognitive biases in decision-making — during recruitment or even project execution — can negatively affect companies.

Communication bias

Take this even more common example of proximity bias resulting in another symptom: communication bias. You have a team with department heads in two different countries, so you invite all those within commuting distance to the meeting at HQ and set up the other department head on video call. The remote employee’s direct reports also join the video call from their respective computers. This is a superficial inclusion.

On the surface, all are present. Nonetheless, as the meeting leader, you might notice body language cues from those in the room, hinting that they would like to share an opinion. However, you simply cannot read the body language of those limited to being heads and shoulders on a screen. As a result, you neglect to invite them to speak as frequently. This causes leaders to unintentionally give preference to in-person attendees, which leads to uneven visibility, narrow bonding opportunities, and a visible disconnect between colleagues.

There is no blame to be assigned for this natural preference. Since the dawn of time, we have all been practicing how to communicate in person, while video conferencing is less than 100 years old and much less widely adopted. The delay of even five-tenths of a second — due to an audio lag or delay in unmuting — messes with conversational mechanics, according to Zachary Yorke, UX Researcher at Google.

In my example above, it would be easy to forget about the people on the screens because they cannot interrupt as promptly, and because we’re hardwired to notice people physically in front of us.

Knowledge silos

Proximity bias also impacts our casual interactions. At the proverbial watercooler, we connect the dots on certain projects, or we network with people of different seniorities. In a fully remote company, there are no watercooler chats. In a hybrid or in-person office, however, people must opt into these conversations, weighing up their workload with the time investment and personal interest in informal catch-ups. This can cause people to feel left out, or to be favored as a result of their casual networking.

There are solutions to proximity bias that don’t involve going wholly remote or dragging everyone back to the office, as these models are not suited to all companies. I’ve gathered some solutions to help other HR leaders transition to hybrid work, while minimizing proximity bias.

How can you avoid proximity bias and social bias?

Hybrid teams can learn from remote-first companies. The differences between remote-friendly and remote-first companies include:

  • Remote-friendly companies do not dictate everything be documented digitally, shared via an online forum, and accessible to everyone. In a remote-first company, all decisions, action points, and open topics are plugged into a knowledge sharing tool at meeting-close, whether it happened on video or in person. This means that information is widely available and accessible in any time zone, which also makes it easier for in-person teams to keep track of decisions.
  • Remote-friendly companies do not insist on in-office workers logging in individually to meetings. Remote-first companies, on the other hand, may have in-person meetings, but everyone – even people at HQ – must log in to the call from their own computer to equalize each person’s visibility.
  • Remote-first companies operate under the belief that in-person meetings, get-togethers, and office work are the exception, not the norm.

Beyond corporate policy, HR teams also need to lead by example and engage in some introspection. To avoid our own bias, we have to understand: Why might someone be more proactive on a call or in person? Then, as HR leaders, we can circumvent these issues:

  1. First, we should take personalities into account.
    We must ensure that both introverts and extroverts have equal opportunity to contribute. Consider different methods for sharing that cater to differing personality types. [NH1] Should you ask participants to only speak when invited to talk, by raising their hand? Can you outline the meeting format ahead of time so that everyone knows what to expect? Perhaps you encourage a written forum at the beginning of a video call to ensure everyone contributes something before discussions start.
  2. Second, HR should be sensitive to cultures.
    Not all professionals express opinions openly until asked to do so. Even when asked directly, not everyone will feel comfortable sharing in front of more senior colleagues. To get a word in on video calls, we may need to be more aggressive than we’re used to, which other attendees may misinterpret as impertinence. So, it really is up to the entire team to think about who is on their call and how best to engage everyone.

    People who already have a brave, outspoken, and empowered mindset enjoy a privilege in some companies. In response to this realization, we began operating breakout sessions from large training to better distribute speaking time. We also started to ask that everyone dial in from their computer, even those at HQ.

  3. Lastly, we must all check our own bias.
    For example, are you harder on someone who could commute but chooses the quiet of their own home for their own productivity, than you are on someone struggling with childcare? The way I see it, it’s irrelevant whether to weigh up being able to come into the office against wanting or not wanting to come into the office. We must treat people equally whether they cannot or choose not to commute.

5 ways we tackle proximity bias at Globalization Partners

Everyone dials in individually, in-office or not.

Everyone on video calls has the same visibility, and we hold each other accountable, even if it is a little uncomfortable asking people to log in on their own computer despite being in the same room. Eventually, this has become the norm, and new colleagues understand that this is simply how our company operates: as fairly as possible. Nobody is made to feel bad for not coming into the office, even if their decision is a preference versus one based on necessity.

Social events are varied and considerate.

We aim to prioritize virtual methods to hold company-wide All Hands meetings and award ceremonies, plus our regional offices schedule game nights online in the local language. Whenever we hold a face-to-face meetup, we plan a virtual option too. When we are looking exclusively at one team getting together, we distribute an anonymous poll asking if they would be comfortable with an outside social gathering, an inside social event in a public or private place, with or without dining options, and so on.

Democracy is facilitated by remote-first work.

We are a remote-first company. Therefore, even if our colleagues have the option to meet in person, we still plan for knowledge sharing and meeting scheduling to be done digitally. We leverage asynchronous tools as standard: Collaboration happens on SharePoint, Slack, Outlook, Confluence, HighSpot, Loom, and other tools first. Meetings, via video conference or not, are reserved for when a team is making decisions together after everyone has had their say.

Cross-border hiring sets the tone for fair work relationships.

We hire anywhere within the time zone that a team operates in. That means that a hiring manager in Monterrey, Mexico, can contract anywhere in Latin America, the U.S., and Canada that falls within an hour or so of their time zone. This has allowed us to access top talent who might not be in the same city, or who simply would not have taken a job that involved a 90-minute commute. Moreover, as many of our teams become cross-border teams, all of us increase our awareness of proximity bias and act to mitigate it.

Our learning will continue, alongside our customers and employees.

Knowing that we wanted to hire a more diverse workforce, we tried and tested several recruitment strategies to spread our wings. We have evolved our professional growth offering to include independent resources, pod work, mentor relationships, mass video conferences, and online talks, and we continue to add more modalities that are open to employees wherever they are based. We know that HR’s job is never done, so we consistently test new methods to further limit proximity bias in our global organization.

Will we ever eradicate cognitive biases in decision-making?

Hybrid and remote-friendly workplaces may struggle to eradicate proximity bias completely. This challenge is good to keep in mind because, while we cannot avoid our innate bias completely, it is crucial we look at our own unconscious proximity bias as something to continuously work on. Awareness, a will to change, and progressive improvement are goals we can truly aspire to. We cannot shy away from the problem in a global workplace, but we can remember that progress is more important than perfection.



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