Proximity Bias: Are In-Office Workers at an Advantage Over Remote Workers?

Photo shows man drinking coffee and working remote

Photo shows man drinking coffee and working remote

Proximity bias, a term that describes how managers tend to favor those they see in person, may force remote and hybrid workers to work harder to keep up with their in-person counterparts.

Photo shows man drinking coffee and working remotely/Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wane and employers encourage staff to return to the office, remote and hybrid workers may have to work harder to keep up with their in-person counterparts.

This is due to proximity bias, a term that describes how managers and leaders within a company tend to favor those who they see in person over those who work remotely.

A Growing Tension

In a recent survey published by Executive Networks, a peer community for HR leaders, 71% of senior HR leaders and 62% of senior business leaders agreed there is likely a proximity bias against remote and hybrid workers.

Jeanne Meister, executive vice president of Executive Networks, told BioSpace that this bias is due in part to a disconnect between employees and their managers. “One has to acknowledge the tension between workers who want and demand workplace flexibility and employers who want to optimize performance and productivity.”

She said this tension, first introduced when more employees were asked to work remotely in 2020, has only grown since then.

This perceived tension is backed by data. LinkedIn reported that as of July 2022, remote jobs made up just 15.9% of all listings on the platform but attracted 52.9% of candidates. Similarly, in a September 2022 survey published by GoodHire, 45% of American workers said they would take a pay cut in exchange for the option to work remotely.

In the same survey, 78% of American workers said they were concerned that remote employees would be more at risk of losing their jobs during a recession than in-person employees.

The Employer Perspective

Scott Rivers, president and managing partner of life sciences executive search firm Cerca Talent, told BioSpace he has seen a shift in companies prioritizing in-person employees over remote and hybrid workers.

“What we began to see right after the pandemic [started] is that people were open to many different types of positions being held remotely, positions that we hadn’t seen before,” Rivers said. “As things begin to go back to normal, companies are wanting people to be in-house.”

He said that for some roles, this is simply due to the nature of the work. For example, he said, those who oversee compliance or quality assurance at a pharma company may have been allowed to work remotely during the pandemic, but they are now being asked to work on-site, as some employers believe this will help speed up the regulatory process.

Rivers also said the economy plays a role in what employers prioritize. Lately, he said, the biopharma companies he works with are focused on increasing productivity.

“Companies are going to start to focus on where they get the most productivity,” he said. “For positions that work better within a team environment . . . I think you’ll see companies focus on getting those teams back together. To me, that’s the general idea and philosophy that I’m seeing from the leaders that we’re working with.”

What Employees Can Do

Meister said proximity bias is not so different from other biases a manager may have when working with a diverse staff. “At the end of the day, the conversation about remote and hybrid working is really a conversation about inclusivity.”

Fortunately, there are steps employees can take to mitigate or prevent proximity bias without offending or accusing their managers outright.

Meister said there are three primary actions employees experiencing proximity bias should take:

  1. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings. These can serve as an opportunity for the employee to update their manager about what they are working on and ask for feedback.
  2. Ask about career growth opportunities. Asking about mentoring or coaching opportunities to improve their skill set shows an employee prioritizes growth.
  3. Request accommodations. Employees can request that their employers take steps to level the playing field between remote and in-person workers. For example, if only one employee is joining a meeting remotely, that employee can ask that the meeting is virtual for everyone, with on-site workers attending from their computers in the office.

“If [proximity bias] happens to you, the onus is first and foremost on you to create opportunities so that there’s a level playing field,” Meister said.