• Katica Roy

Preventing Proximity Bias In Hybrid Work Is Key To Closing Equity Gaps



Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)


If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.


The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.

  • Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.

  • Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.


Be Brave™




Avoid The DEI Pitfalls of Hybrid Work


Question:

I am a huge fan of remote work and thankful that I will be allowed to continue WFH into the foreseeable future. I’m just wondering what companies are doing about proximity bias?


Answer:

Whether we realize it or not, we favor people that are closest to us. That’s proximity bias. It’s human nature to confer preferential status to those in our immediate vicinity. When we say something or someone is “out of sight, out of mind,” we’re activating the proximity bias.


Proximity Bias x WFH


Proximity bias benefits employees who:

  1. Spend more physical time at the office

  2. Have frequent contact with leadership

  3. Are present in high-level meetings

  4. Work during peak business hours


Companies that green-light hybrid work will need to install systems to account for proximity bias. Otherwise, disparities between remote and in-office workers will develop and flourish. Now here’s what vexes me about this situation:


82% of business leaders endorse hybrid work arrangements but only 13% are concerned about ensuring parity between remote and in-office employees post-pandemic.

What about the other 87%? Why aren’t they concerned about proximity bias distorting the employee experience and destabilizing business performance? As it stands, 64% of managers believe office workers are higher performers than remote workers. Why aren’t more leaders taking steps to neutralize the outdated notion of employee presenteeism?


We don’t know why. What we do know is this:


If we apply the intersectional gender lens to this issue, we find evidence to believe that proximity bias via hybrid work will complicate progress toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces.


Proximity Bias x Intersectional Gender Equity


The Great Experiment of Hybrid Work is still in its infancy, so we don’t have a reliable set of data to understand its effects on intersectional gender equity. However, we can look to related data sets to forecast the impact.


Here’s one. Back in April, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a 70-page report of 30,000 US workers.


One of the hallmark conclusions of their research was that, over the past year, high-income men in their 30s and 40s were the most satisfied with and benefited the most from remote work.

It makes sense. 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. Only 13% of women with children said the same thing.


Based on these findings, you might think women would be itching to get back into the office. But that’s not the case. Women were more likely than men to want extensive WFH arrangements post-pandemic (i.e. 5 days/week remote) when given the option.


Although the NBER study didn’t disaggregate its data by race/ethnicity, we know from the Future Forum that Black knowledge workers are, like women, more desiring of WFH arrangements: 97% of Black knowledge workers compared to 79% of White knowledge workers want a hybrid or full-time remote work schedule.


Key point: Women and Black employees over-index on wanting to work remotely post-pandemic. Companies that offer hybrid work arrangements need systems to neutralize bias between in-office and remote workers so they don’t further entrench intersectional gender inequity gaps.


Step To Mitigate Proximity Bias In Hybrid Work


1. Treat performance evaluations and promotions like you treat your sales KPIs


Make them objective and transparent. Sales reps know their numbers. They know what they need to succeed. Their conversion rates are based on objective data, not subjective feelings. You should apply the same framework for employee evaluations and promotions. In other words, focus on outcomes, not the number of informal happy hours an employee attends.


Case study: In 2002, Scotiabank implemented a transparent career advancement process in an effort to improve employee representation and business performance. By 2006, the number of women in senior management levels had risen from 18.9% to 31%. The number of women in executive leadership had risen from 26.7% to 36.8%.


What does it take to get from point A to point B at your organization? Now’s the time to decide and document that.


2. Have a diverse representation of viewpoints when making decisions


Two days at home, three days in the office? Office is optional Mondays and Fridays? Completely remote if you want? Make sure to include all voices before deciding on future work arrangements. If critical voices are not part of discussions that impact the entire company, leaders risk alienating a huge portion of their talent pool.


3. Use advanced people analytics to remove bias from the employee lifecycle


Advanced technology provides companies with a seamless way to mitigate bias in hybrid work. With AI, organizations can ensure all talent decisions across the entire employee lifecycle are equitable—regardless of the physical location of the employee. It’s literally the equivalent of hardwiring intersectional gender equity into the future of work.


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© 2021 Katica Roy™, Inc.