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Topic: women at work

The hybrid work bias and how it affects women


6 minute read

By Chloe Mumford

With 28.2% of workers adapting to a hybrid work model, researchers can now see the positives and negatives of hybrid working. While it offers many benefits, ‘proximity bias’ can put hybrid workers at a disadvantage, and according to research, women bear the brunt of it. Findings from YouGov’s Workforce Insights study indicate that women have a stronger preference for hybrid working, with 72% of women wanting a flexible working location, compared to only 57% of men.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of proximity bias, its specific effects women, and what strategies organizations can employ to prevent or stop the bias.

Proximity bias and its impact on hybrid workers

Psychologists coined the term “proximity bias” in the 1970s to describe an unconscious inclination for people to develop more favorable perceptions of individuals they are physically closer to. In the context of the world of work, this can often lead to favoritism, better collaboration, and more opportunities for those in close proximity, while potentially overlooking or undervaluing the contributions of remote or distant teams.

There are various reasons why this bias occurs. It is closely related to cognitive and social biases that influence how people perceive and interact with others. Humans tend to form social bonds more easily with those we are physically close to. People working in close proximity to one another have more opportunities for casual interactions. This plays a big part in fostering a sense of belonging and camaraderie, making it easier to relate to and collaborate with those nearby. Consequently, those who are working far away or at home might be perceived as less relatable or connected.

This bias can also negatively impact employee relationships with their team leaders/managers leading them to be overlooked for promotion and professional development opportunities. Furthermore, it’s easier for managers to see the work being completed by workers in the office, as they can see it in person and maintain regular communication. Remote workers face obstacles to communication, having to send a message/email or arrange a call for every bit of interaction. This kind of communication is less effective than catching up in person, often causing managers to not fully appreciate the significance of tasks completed remotely.

How proximity bias affects women

While men are affected by proximity bias too, studies have shown that it has a greater impact on women. There are various reasons why women are more susceptible to it. Research shows that women choose to work from home more than men, especially those with young children. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, women with children are 50% more likely to prefer working from home than men. While hybrid working is allowing women, particularly working mothers, to have a greater work-life balance, in many cases it has a detrimental impact on their careers. Balancing family responsibilities with work commitments may result in fewer opportunities for casual networking and relationship-building.

A study by Qualtrics and the Boardlist shows that women working from home receive more bias than men. Furthermore, it found that among remote workers, men received a pay increase twice as often as women, at a rate of 26% compared to 13%. This situation indicates the intersection of gender bias and proximity bias, placing women at a great disadvantage.

Unconscious biases can influence how women’s contributions are perceived in the workplace. Proximity bias might exacerbate these biases, causing decision-makers to favor those they interact with more, often to the detriment of remote workers, which disproportionately includes women. Additionally, the Women at Work report by Deloitte, found that 60% of women hybrid workers have felt excluded from meetings, while almost half worried that they had not received the exposure to leaders necessary for career progression.

What can organizations do to mitigate hybrid work bias?

Firstly, it’s important to get to the root of the problem — undervaluing hybrid workers. There are various strategies to overcome proximity bias. However, organizations must adapt to be successful.

Two in five workers report feeling worried that less face-to-face time with company leadership will negatively impact their career growth. This worry is also shared by organizations , with 41% of executives saying potential inequities between remote and in-office employees are their top concern. Having recognized these concerns, we’ve devised some solutions to address the issue.

Regular check-ins

Naturally, working in the same space as your employee means it’s easier to have regular check-ins and observe their progress. Inevitably, occupying the same physical space leads to more spontaneous conversations and smoother collaboration, which is a lot harder to replicate with those working at home. With hybrid workers, communication takes more effort to schedule.

However, these meetings are absolutely necessary to provide feedback, recognize achievements, and acknowledge contributions, helping employees feel motivated and valued. Or perhaps have an arrangement where workers know to schedule a meeting once they have completed an important task in order to receive feedback.

Additionally, managers need to keep track of the meetings they have with in-office workers, versus those who work remotely. That allows managers to identify any potential disparity in communication, which may disadvantage them and could lead to proximity bias. Remote employees should have the same chances for growth as in-office colleagues, so use virtual meetings to discuss their career goals and professional development opportunities.

Provide hybrid workers with access to mentoring and sponsorship

Women often find it harder than men to build professional networks and find a mentor who will strongly support their careers. This would be especially paramount for women hybrid workers, who wouldn’t receive as much opportunity to network as in-office workers.

This is why giving hybrid workers access to mentoring and sponsorship opportunities, like in-office workers receive, is necessary. Virtual meetings give them an option to network without having to be in the office.

Additionally, organizations must be open to hosting hybrid events, where participants have the option to attend either in person or remotely through digital platforms. This allows for greater flexibility, enabling individuals to participate in a way that best suits their preferences, needs, or constraints.

Modern collaboration tools allow hybrid workers to work on projects virtually with coworkers or managers. However, in order to ensure everyone is on the same page, it’s vital to establish guidelines for response times, availability, and expectations regarding communication frequency. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Workspace, and project management platforms such as Asana or Trello are great for enhancing virtual collaboration.

Don’t rely on text-based communication

Research shows that most people understand information better when communicated visually, such as through a video call. Video calls provide a more personal connection, allowing people to read non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, and foster a sense of presence. That’s why when giving remote workers new tasks, it’s more effective to discuss it over a video call, instead of an email or online message.

It’s more efficient and allows the worker to ask questions, get clarification, and express any concerns they may have. This prevents potential delays or errors caused by unclear instructions. Calls allow for a more open discussion, whereas in emails information may get misconstrued.

Final thoughts

Organizations must remain mindful of what led them to adopt hybrid work in the first place. Not only does the hybrid work arrangement increase productivity, it also allows companies to better attract/retain top talent, and boost worker job satisfaction. It’s clear that hybrid working does indeed bring benefits to organizations, which is why proximity bias must get addressed.

Hybrid work shouldn’t result in any form of disadvantage, especially for women in the workplace who are feeling the effect of both gender bias and proximity bias. By proactively working to prevent proximity bias in their workplace, organizations can effectively support and empower women, leading to a more inclusive and fair environment for all.

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