How to Address the Feared Proximity Bias When Returning to the Office
As the world adapts to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, organizations face many challenges in implementing strategies for returning to the office.
An issue that many workers face is proximity bias. Proximity bias is the assumption that people are more productive in an office environment – they work better when they are in close physical proximity to others with their managers in sight. Since the start of the pandemic, it has been proven that this is not always true, and many organizations have been able to function optimally in a remote setting.
Organizations need to have clear strategies in place for how they move forward. One of the considerations will be whether they implement a total return to the office vs. an entirely remote workforce or some hybrid combination of the two. It will be a delicate balancing act of weighing official regulations with organizational capabilities while ensuring employees’ safety and mental well-being.
Here are three ways to combat proximity bias when returning to the office:
Create equal opportunities for all employees
Before the pandemic, remote work was seen as a privilege rather than a necessity. Many organizations have since realized that employees can be just as productive outside the office as they are in it. Despite this, remote workers likely still face unconscious biases regarding their career progression in the post-pandemic working environment. In-person workers may still be at an advantage just by the mere fact that they are more visible to management.
Employees need the training and tools to succeed, whether they are working in the office or at home, and to feel supported. As such, expectations should be managed and set structures in place that clearly define these. Business leaders must implement policies and procedures that support both in-office and remote workers equally. The emphasis should be on a people-first approach with policies communicated and implemented across all functional disciplines, including human resources, legal, security, and IT.
Keep channels of communication open
The remote working space has meant losing face time between team members and a lack of spontaneous interactions usually experienced in the traditional office environment, like random chats in the lunchroom or ad hoc brainstorming sessions in the boardroom.
Remote workers still need to feel connected. Business leaders must be more intentional in ensuring that those working from home are still included and connected to the team.
One way to ensure this is to provide formal communication channels to keep remote workers informed of important decisions. At the same time, leaders need to establish trust between teams, both in-office and remote. Keeping open channels of communication and collaboration will undoubtedly contribute to combatting proximity bias when returning to the office.
Consider a flexible working environment
Returning to the office may lead to fear and anxiety for employees, and business leaders must ensure that they address these with empathy. A worker who is reluctant to return to work in the office should not be discriminated against.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is to take a flexible approach to business operations. When it comes to returning to the office, business leaders should consider a flexible working environment that includes a hybrid work model of both in-office and remote work, giving employees the option to work how they are most comfortable.
When implementing a hybrid approach, businesses should create opportunities for smaller working groups so that employees are only required to come into the office for collaborative brainstorming sessions or essential projects. For more focused work, they should be given the option of working from home. Another option includes the introduction of staggered shifts to ensure fewer people are in the office at the same time.
The responsibility of business leaders during this complicated transition
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for new approaches to our traditional business models. Enterprise leaders must be flexible in approaching the unique challenges of keeping operations going while minimizing their employees’ risk.
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