Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Hybrid work poses proximity bias challenge for managers

Out-Law Analysis | 07 Oct 2021 | 2:36 pm | 3 min. read

Companies around the world are in the middle of a revolution in working practices. While offices are reopening in the wake of the pandemic, many businesses are adopting hybrid working and giving employees significantly more flexibility in how, when and where they work.

Managers not only need to put in place procedures to make the return to the office as streamlined as possible; they must also grapple with the issue of ensuring that those who return to the office on a more frequent basis are not treated more favourably.

There is an unconscious tendency to favour those who we see or work closely with on a regular basis. This could be to the detriment of those who work permanently or more frequently from home. This is now being referred to as “proximity bias”.

As more organisations adopt a more flexible approach to home working following the pandemic they need to be more alive to the challenges this brings. Recognising that proximity bias may be an issue is the first step in addressing it.

How to minimise proximity bias

There are plenty of ways to mitigate proximity bias. Managers should first of all be encouraged to have regular conversations with staff, both those in the office and those working from home.  Taking a more formal approach to this, for example diarising regular catch ups, may be needed to ensure that no-one is inadvertently missed.

Corden Helen

Helen Corden

Partner

If managers do not implement effective hybrid working, it could lead to unrest or disagreements between staff and, in a worst-case scenario, potential claims for discrimination

Businesses could consider holding all meetings by video conference, regardless of whether people are in the office or not. This is to stop those people who are gathered together in a room dominating the conversation to the exclusion of those dialling in remotely.

If hybrid meetings are held, it is important to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to contribute and that those physically present in the room do not in fact dominate the conversation.  Whoever is chairing the meeting will need to take more control over the flow of the meeting and conversation than would otherwise be needed when everyone is present in the same room. It is much harder for someone attending virtually to interject or participate in the conversation and therefore the chairperson needs to ensure that everyone is included. Those attending virtually are much more likely to “switch off” and become disengaged as a result of a discussion that is taking place across the table.

It is also important to create an environment of trust, in which employees feel safe to raise issues relating to their working patterns and the return to the office – for example, what’s working well and what’s not.

To avoid tasks being handed out to those in the office who a manager might see, it is worth putting in place an objective system for the allocation of work, rather than simply passing it those who can be seen in the office. This benefits everyone, as it avoids swamping those in the office as well as recognising the value of those working remotely. The person in the office might not be the best person for the job. Whilst it might be easier for a manager to hand work out in this way as it “gets it off their desk”, it may mean that the work is not undertaken by the person at the right level and with the right level of expertise.  It may also lead to disgruntled staff – both those in the office and those working from home.  Any cultural issues should be addressed to avoid an “us and them” scenario which divides office workers from remote workers.

Managers of teams will need to work more closely together to ensure that a collective view and approach is taken to assessing individual and team performance and workload.

There should be an equal opportunity for everyone to adopt a flexible working model. Managers should lead by example by continuing to work from home regularly to show it is acceptable and that employees do not have to come into the office every day.

Why it matters

Putting in place the proper processes to manage hybrid working is key, not only to avoid proximity bias but also to stop situations escalating. If managers do not implement effective hybrid working, it could lead to unrest or disagreements between staff and, in a worst-case scenario, potential claims for discrimination.

These could arise if, for example, women who decide to work from home more frequently miss out on work opportunities which may be directed to men who are physically present in the office.

Proximity bias may also result in those being present in the office being more likely to be put forward for promotion. If this results in more men being promoted then this could also adversely impact on the gender pay gap.

Done right, hybrid working is a huge opportunity to improve the work-life balance for workers, but employers must remain alive to the dangers of not addressing its challenges early on.