You’re leading a 4 PM meeting; five employees are with you in a conference room and others have dialed in from elsewhere. You ask for volunteers to write a report for the CEO, and several hands shoot up, including a few on Zoom. You tap the person sitting across from you because they’re the first one you see.
This, in a nutshell, is distance bias in the workplace: unintentionally favoring employees who are closest to you over those who are farther away. David Rock is Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a consultancy that uses science-based methods to help clients such as Netflix and Microsoft grow and develop soft skills. He told Toptal Insights that it’s based in the brain’s unconscious tendency to pay more attention to events and people that are nearest to us in both time and space.
While perfectly normal, distance bias—also called proximity bias—can have serious consequences for a business, including lower productivity and employee engagement and increased attrition. Bhushan Sethi, Principal, Joint Global Leader, People and Organization at PwC, told Insights, “The old adage pre-pandemic ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is real. We know that there is proximity bias in all aspects of our life and our work. We build relationships with people who are close to us. There’s a bias to doing that with people who are around us because it’s much easier.”
No matter how evolved a company’s leaders are, says Rock, everyone has bias. Distance bias is part of the brain’s network for deciding how important something is and how much to care about it. Orienting your attention to things that are closer to you is a shortcut that keeps you safe and focused, and helps the brain quickly process and sort large amounts of information.
Unfortunately, it may also lead to unequal treatment of co-workers. Managers are more likely to give people who work on-site higher raises, bigger bonuses, and more promotions compared to their off-site peers, says Brian Kropp, Group Vice President and Chief of HR Research at Gartner. Left unchecked, distance bias can create all sorts of unintended consequences for individual employees, teams, and your whole organization.
Some of the effects Sethi has witnessed include remote workers who feel demoralized and excluded. This can lead to inequity and a remote-work stigma, he says, where employees feel pressured to come back into the office even if that’s not the best thing for them. “The consequences eventually are going to be ineffective teaming,” he says.
Another huge cost of distance bias is the loss of top talent. A biased environment can cause remote and hybrid employees to feel that their career trajectory and earnings potential are compromised. This, says Kropp, is occurring “while there’s a massive expansion of opportunities to work in other places, as companies become much more interested in having a remote-hybrid work environment. Those employees will go to other organizations and have successful careers there.”
Companies like Google, Citigroup, Microsoft, and Ford Motor Co. have already announced they’re moving to a hybrid work model, and according to Gartner, by 2022, 70% of the global knowledge workforce will work from home all or some of the time. That creates countless opportunities for distance bias to creep in and do damage. “What we have to do as executives is figure out how to create a fair environment for all of our employees—because the last thing that we want to do is create an unfair, biased environment for the people who are actually performing,” says Kropp.
The first step in countering distance bias is becoming aware that it exists at all. Here are more ways to avoid these pitfalls in your hybrid workplace.
Make All Meetings Virtual Friendly
With a hybrid workforce, “you actually have to design everything with a virtual-first mentality because the expectation is that not everybody is going to be together,” says Sacha Connor, CEO of Virtual Work Insider, a consultancy that helps train leaders at companies such as Toyota, Cisco, and Vanguard, and former Director of Marketing at The Clorox Company. “From a meetings perspective, always assume somebody’s not going to be there in person. Always assume that you’re going to have video or some sort of call-in information, and make sure that everybody can see all the materials and participate.”
Leaders must also be proactive about inviting remote meeting attendees into the discussion, rather than allowing distance bias to dictate who participates and who doesn’t, Connor says. Another key move is to equally distribute the burden of time-zone differences. Don’t host team meetings at the same time each week if they’re outside of normal business hours for some employees. Instead, rotate meeting times so as not to burden remote employees with too many early or late sessions.
Rock takes this advice one step further, advising that if one person calls into a meeting using a virtual platform, everyone should call in—even if some invitees are mere cubicles away from each other. This practice is one of the quickest and easiest ways to completely remove distance from meetings. “Now you’re seeing everyone much more equally, so you’ve got a lot less bias,” he says.
Allow Everyone Flexible Work Schedules
Leaders can ensure future business growth by embracing personalization and allowing all employees flexible schedules, according to PwC analysts. Rock agrees. “No one is maximally efficient sitting in one place for eight hours—no one,” he says. “Some people are able to get up at 6 AM and work until 10 AM, go to the gym for two hours and then work for five hours straight, and they do an incredible eight or nine hours that’s unbelievably better than anything they used to do.”
Giving both in-office and remote office employees the freedom to define their schedules will minimize distance bias in hybrid environments by not prioritizing one work schedule over another. This flexibility also challenges the assumptions leaders have about presenteeism—if you’re allowing in-office workers to have more flexibility in their schedules, you’ll be less inclined to make negative assumptions about the engagement level of remote workers relative to on-site workers.
To leaders who are recalling a significant portion of their workforce to the office, Rock has some more advice: Remember that just because it may feel good to be back together doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good for productivity. “You could be killing people’s productivity by forcing them back in[to the office],” he says. “As the manager, if you want to bring people back, give them a lot of choice because all the research points to productivity and creativity being much better when people are able to work from home.”
Actively Consider Remote Employees for Opportunities
To fight distance bias, leaders have to become much more intentional about what they do, says Kropp. If there’s a new opportunity that emerges for a team member, for example, a manager shouldn’t assign it based on a gut reaction or to someone closest in proximity; rather, they need to deliberately choose a person who is best equipped to tackle it.
And if you have questions about a project or other issue, seek out the right person to ask about it, rather than whoever is closest in proximity, adds Connor. Over time, technology has enabled workplace teams to collaborate from anywhere. “But I think the mindset hasn’t caught up to the technology,” she says. “When I teach teams about virtual leadership skills, I always emphasize that while the tech tools are important, you need to be really good at expectation setting and creating location inclusion.”
Leverage Messaging Apps to Streamline Communication
With fewer watercooler conversations and impromptu hallway run-ins, hybrid workers are at a disadvantage when it comes to being in the know. They’re also more likely to face communication gaps than fully remote employees, says Kropp. “People I never see in person, I communicate well with because I’m more intentional about it.” When someone is fully remote, you know you need to tag them on a collaboration platform, send a follow-up email, or call to loop them in.
With hybrid employees who you see in person some of the time, however, it’s easy to assume you’ll fill them in later. “My brain tells me: ‘Well, I’m going to see them, so I don’t need to worry about it,’ but then I don’t actually see them,” says Kropp. And there you have it—a dropped thread, and a hybrid employee who’s out of sync.
Leaders must strategize and implement a uniform communication strategy so that every team member is up to date and has access to a single source of truth on shared projects. Messaging apps such as Slack, and workflow platforms like Asana and Trello, can help. For example, leaders can notify all collaborators using comments on task cards in Asana, or create a project-specific Slack channel for regular updates, meeting agendas, and postmortems.
Making these deliberate management decisions and communicating with intention will help counter distance bias and lead to a more engaged, higher performing hybrid workforce. Such approaches will also forge a more inclusive and understanding one, says Sethi. “We want to have compassion for our people; we want to give people the right types of flexibility, whether that person is in Denver or Delhi,” he says. Ultimately, a level playing field at work is the best thing for the employees, the financials, and the customers. “You can’t just pay lip service; you actually have to put in the work to design a deliberate process. If your firm makes a commitment that people can work flexibly, fully remote, or hybrid, it’s incumbent on the organization and leadership team to give everyone an opportunity to progress.”