Beating proximity bias with performance management

Biases are the ‘Big Bad’ of modern workplaces and one of the most potent biases is proximity bias. This bias can drive wedges between in-house and remote teams based on nothing more than proximity to the boss.

But there is a cure to the scourge of proximity bias in the workplace – one that takes some savvy tech, a re-energized leadership culture, and a lot of peer-led feedback based on a system of targeted 360 appraisals.

What is proximity bias?

Workplace proximity bias can be defined as workers who are given preferential treatment, such as access to resources, more responsibility, or promotion opportunities, as a result of being physically closer to management or leadership figures.

Proximity bias is an egregious form of implicit bias. It is rightly considered workplace poison, partly responsible for the rise of quiet quitting, a fundamental breakdown of workplace culture, and poor retention of talent.

The adage “people don’t quit bad jobs, they quit bad managers” is made hyper-real when business leaders incorrectly build cultures of reward and recognition based on who’s closest to the office.

How often does proximity bias manifest?

Pre-COVID, proximity bias was present but manifested more as a package of biases, alongside confirmation biasaffinity bias, and conformity bias. In the post-COVID hybrid era, however, the bias landscape has shifted – even good leadership teams are suffering from a rise in proximity biases as they adjust to managing remote workforces.

Hybrid work vs. Proximity bias

Let’s put some stats down to better visualize proximity bias. To set the scene, let’s start with some research on poor leadership:

  • “64% of managers believe that office workers are higher performers than remote workers, and in turn are likely to give in-office workers a higher raise than those who work from home” – Axios/Gartner.
  • “In the US, a whopping 72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in the office” – BBC.
  • “Two-thirds of employers do not trust their staff when it comes to working remotely” – People Management.

Now let’s compare that to worker and leadership viewpoints and stats on remote/hybrid work:

  • “Knowledge workers with flexibility consistently report less stress and anxiety, better work-life balance, and greater satisfaction with their jobs than fully in-office workers” – Future Forum.
  •  “When employees have access to remote-work options…burnout at work decreases by over a quarter (26%)’’ – LSE.
  • “The greatest advantages of hybrid work to date are improved work-life balance, more efficient use of time, control over work hours and work location, burnout mitigation, and higher productivity” – Gallup.

Many executives might have mixed feelings about remote and hybrid work, but almost every worker who has the choice wants it. The benefits of hybrid work have been widely reported, and they touch on everything from reducing burnout to increasing happiness and productivity.

Hence the rise of a unique type of post-COVID proximity bias. But contained within the legacy structures of poor leadership are the nuggets of a solution – a renewed, revamped, relevant performance management system that helps contextualize productivity for employers and helps connect remote workers with their work.

How does performance management fix proximity bias?

The keys to reducing proximity bias and building a culture of adequate reward and recognition lie around ensuring every team lead can accurately assess performance, regardless of location. This is done in several ways:

 360 appraisal system: This model of anonymous peer and manager performance is becoming increasingly popular across remote and in-house teams. They are ideal for measuring traditionally hard-to-measure performance metrics such as communication and behaviors. They are vital in setting objectives, professional goals, and targets based on real-time feedback. Both employer and employee benefits, regardless of working location.

 1:1 Meetings: Regular check-ins, where performance can be monitored and updated, discussed, and reinforced. The emphasis is on the employee’s personal development and recognizing individual efforts to maintain company culture in a hybrid work environment.

Objective achievement: Setting specific, quantifiable Objectives means that performance can be measured and rewarded equally for remote workers as it is for in-office workers. It also helps employers focus on the work results rather than the location where it was completed.

Pulse Surveys: The go-to for successful hybrid teams. Employers can get a more honest portrayal of their own leadership and the performance of their teams by offering regular pulse surveys. Not only does it provide real-time data on how employees are feeling, but it helps demonstrate the value of remote work to difficult-to-convince leadership teams.

Context is everything

Modern performance management tools can help rid workplaces of proximity bias by reducing reliance on physical presence to dictate performance judgment, all while including and encouraging employees to provide the data needed to make the right performance decisions.

But it’s not just about the tools. It’s about changing the mindset and culture of the leadership team to support a hybrid work environment, where performance is based on results and individual effort rather than physical presence in an office.

So if your company is struggling with proximity bias and the transition to hybrid work, consider sprucing up your performance management system. It may just be the solution you’ve been looking for to embrace the future of work.