Proximity bias: Overcoming the challenges of rewarding fairly with a hybrid workforce

Proximity bias: Overcoming the challenges of rewarding fairly with a hybrid workforce

With hybrid workforces now common in the UK and beyond, businesses are now faced with the challenge of ensuring they’re recognising and rewarding their employees fairly. A phenomenon called ‘proximity bias’ has emerged which highlights our natural instinct to favour individuals that we’re in close proximity to. In the world of hybrid work, this means that employees that are working on-site, and therefore in close contact with their colleagues and senior leaders, are potentially more likely to receive recognition for their work than their colleagues working from home. 

In fact, a study from the Office of National Statistics shows that employees who mainly worked from home between 2013 and 2020 were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus than those who never worked from home. This supports the idea that some businesses are subconsciously overlooking their remote workers’ efforts and not rewarding them fairly. Doing this long-term will be harmful to remote employees’ levels of engagement and a business’s overall success, so it’s vital to actively ensure your business is recognising and rewarding its team fairly, regardless of where individuals are working. 

The impact of proximity bias

Feeling recognised and valued is crucial to employee morale so, if remote workers aren’t receiving the same appreciation, support and opportunity as their in-office peers, they may feel neglected and demoralised. Interestingly, further research from the Office of National Statistics shows that people who completed any work from home in 2020 did 6 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never worked from home. It also shows that remote workers were more likely to work in the evenings and that the sickness absence rate for workers doing any work from home in 2020 was 0.9% on average, compared with 2.2% for those who never worked from home in their main job. Looking at these findings, it appears that those who predominantly work from home are working harder and longer to gain favour with managers due to a perception that they have to ‘make up’ for their physical absence. However, working long hours can be detrimental to employees’ mental health and taking time to unwind away from the screen is key to feeling and operating well. This mentality, if not confronted, can lead to long-term presenteeism and burnout. This is why it’s so important for businesses to tackle proximity bias head-on, ensure their remote workers don’t feel the need to overwork themselves and ensure they’re rewarding their people fairly. 

If your business has or is thinking of implementing a hybrid working model, here are a few ways you can make sure it rewards fairly by understanding why proximity bias happens and how to foster a fair and equitable work environment, whether your team members are office-based or not:

Start by addressing the stigma around remote working

The first step towards overcoming proximity bias is to understand and address the negative preconceptions that exist around remote working, specifically home working. Luckily, the pandemic challenged preconceived ideas that working from home is easy and enables laziness, but it’s clear that many business leaders would still prefer their employees to come into the office or a central place of work. A June poll for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) showed that about half of UK managers expected staff to be in the office at least two to three days a week and further research from an SHRM survey has suggested around two-thirds of managers believe full-time remote work is detrimental to employees’ career objectives. 

If your business is opting for a hybrid working policy, first and foremost it’s important to define your policy to ensure clarity across your workforce. If you’ve given your employees the freedom to choose where they work, it’s crucial that your senior leaders and managers re-evaluate any subconscious views they may have about remote workers. Ensure that no matter where an employee is working, their actions and achievements are visible to their managers, as this will help ensure that they are rewarded fairly and given the same opportunities as their colleagues on-site. Once you’ve challenged this negative stigma around home working, you can begin to look at ways to reward your dispersed team fairly.

Find out more about the negative stigma around remote working.

Create a targeted communications strategy

When deciding how to reward a dispersed team, creating an intentional communication plan that targets both those in-office and remote workers is essential. Your internal communications play an important role in bridging the physical distance between colleagues. With that in mind, regular company updates that highlight the different work going on in all areas of the business are valuable. Communications such as a monthly or quarterly newsletter, posts on your intranet or internal platform and regular company video calls will not only keep employees from all corners of your business in the loop but also facilitate an ongoing two-way narrative and encourage relationships between members of your team, regardless of location. This is vital for maintaining a healthy and happy team and work culture, as well as giving your remote workers more visibility, and therefore more opportunities to be rewarded.

Introduce a peer-to-peer recognition scheme

Part of rewarding your team fairly is making sure that every single member of your team has the same opportunity to receive recognition and rewards, no matter who they are or where they work. Introducing a peer-to-peer recognition scheme is a great way of enhancing the inclusivity of your rewards because employees can thank their colleagues whenever they see fit and shine a spotlight on individual achievements. This then gives your business the opportunity to reward the actions and achievements of home workers that may have otherwise gone under the radar.

With the addition of a social wall – an internal forum where instances of recognition are shared – the actions and achievements of your employees will be available to view throughout the company, giving remote workers just as much visibility as their colleagues who work on-site. Managers can then choose to further recognise individuals with a reward to demonstrate that their contributions have been valued by the business. 

Level the playing field

One reason why proximity bias is damaging is that it can cause managers to make inaccurate judgements – ignoring skill and expertise in favour of location – which may stunt the career growth of otherwise capable and talented individuals. Looking again at research from the Office of National Statistics, between 2012 and 2017, employees who consistently worked mainly at home were less than half as likely to have received a promotion compared with those who consistently worked mainly away from home. Similarly, if an employee changed to mainly working from home, but had previously worked away from home, they saw their chance of being promoted fall by nearly half. This suggests remote workers are being overlooked when being considered for a promotion and that reduced face-to-face interaction with colleagues and managers may even contribute to slower career progression for them.

Professional development and growth opportunities are key to ensuring your employees are satisfied and fulfilled. Therefore, if remote employees aren’t seeing their contributions adequately acknowledged, it can negatively affect their employee experience and damage their levels of engagement and fulfilment at work. In order to tackle this, clearly communicate to your team what good work looks like with specific criteria or targets, keep tabs on your remote employees so you can view their progress and, ultimately, make decisions about performance and progression based on how much has been achieved, not what you perceive to have been done. You can also support all of your employees in expanding their skill set and boost overall morale and satisfaction with online learning tools that can be accessed anywhere such as the online learning solution, LEARN, which is accessible through our online wellbeing hub, the zone.

Final thoughts

Because proximity bias often happens subconsciously, it can be difficult to know how to tackle it. But, ultimately, it starts with demonstrating self-awareness by understanding why it happens and facilitating ways for every employee in your workplace to collaborate and stay connected regardless of location. Practising empathy and showing emotional intelligence is key when managing a hybrid workforce. Whether it’s health anxieties, a more desirable work/life balance or being able to save time and money on a commute, there are many reasons why your employees might want additional flexibility. Take time to understand the challenges faced by your remote workers and find ways to support them so that you can help tackle proximity bias and the stigma around remote working. Find out more about how our ereward solution can support your hybrid workforce here.


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