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Shift to Remote Work Raises Proximity Bias Concerns

Proximity bias existed long before COVID-19 relegated many employees to work at home, but with more and more returning to the office, those who want to continue to work remotely are growing increasingly concerned about it.

work from home 4987741 640The idea or assumption behind proximity bias is that employees who share or are near the same physical space as their managers and senior leaders will be seen as superior workers and be rewarded with better perks and even higher pay and promotions than their remote peers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a big concern was presenteeism, where employees often logged-in long hours in the office under the often mistaken notion that they would be seen as more productive, Raconteur reports. With the shutdown sidelining many to work remotely last year and the growing emergence of a hybrid workplace this year post-COVID-19, proximity bias is a growing worry.

“Essentially, if workers are seldom or no longer in the office, how do they get noticed and get their contribution recognised?,” Raconteur notes. “And how do managers overcome their natural and unconscious bias of favouring colleagues who are either in the office with them or collaborating on a project remotely?”

Stephen Ravenscroft, head of employment at law firm Memery Crystal, tells Raconteur that proximity bias is not widespread now, but he sees it becoming a “rising concern” as more and more employers set-up hybrid workplaces. And employers need to be on the lookout for potential changes in the law.

“It has been proposed the [draft] Employment Bill [due to be debated] this year will make flexible working the kind of expected standard for businesses that can cater for it and the employer will have to show why it isn’t appropriate in certain circumstances,” Ravenscroft notes. “That’s a 180-degree turn from now, where the employee has to explain why they should be allowed it and the employer has a set of reasons under which they can refuse it.”

Companies that have not done so yet will need to come up with ways to ensure that all their employees are “visible,” says Sally Todd, partner at flexible working consultants DuoMe. “If a manager can’t rely on people being at their desk now to keep up with what’s going on, it will be harder to gauge how people are progressing without systems in place to allow people to document progress, record actions, and share and retrieve work at different times.”

It has become easier for employers to develop a hybrid workplace as the U.S. population approaches close to 60% of adults being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, MarketWatch reports. But experts note that disparities for who is best suited to return to the office could lead to unintended consequences that foster inequities with career advancements.

Employers can continue practices that took off during the pandemic, such as telework, that could head off future potential problems around inequities. The ability for people to continue telework can be “transformational,” especially as this work arrangement last year allowed many to enter the workforce for the first time, says Kathryn Zickuhr, a labor-market policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a research and grantmaking nonprofit.

Remote work can be crucial for those with disabilities as well as workers who have caregiving responsibilities. Employers also may have a tougher time demanding their workers come back to the office post COVID-19, such as working mothers and people with disabilities “who could most benefit from greater location flexibility,” Michelle Travis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, tells MarketWatch.

“Before the pandemic, courts frequently upheld legal challenges to employer demands for on-site office presence, despite the disparate impact that these policies have on women with significant caregiving responsibilities and some individuals with disabilities, among others,” Travis said.

“Courts readily accepted employers’ assertions that on-site presence was a business necessity driven by teamwork, productivity, and supervision demands, and that allowing employees to work from home would pose an undue hardship to the company,” she adds. But post-pandemic, it should be “…easier for working moms or individuals with disabilities to pursue discrimination claims if employers refuse requests to continue to work remotely.”

Katica Roy, CEO of Pipeline Equity, writes that while 82% of business leaders support a hybrid work setup, only 13% worry about making sure there is parity between their on-site office staff and their remote workers post pandemic. Her firm helps businesses see how improved gender equity can bolster their bottom lines.

“As it stands, 64% of managers believe office workers are higher performers than remote workers,” Roy notes. “Why aren’t more leaders taking steps to neutralize the outdated notion of employee presenteeism?” Roy also points out that “men with children who worked remotely during the pandemic received promotions at nearly 3x the rate of women in the same situation."

“And, 26% of men with children received a pay raise while working remotely during the pandemic,” she adds. “Only 13% of women with children said the same thing.”

For one employer that has fully embraced remote working, there are still some questions on how employees who are allowed to continue working remotely once their companies adopt a hybrid setup will fare, Protocol reports.


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