What is ‘proximity bias’? And how can you protect yourself from it in a hybrid working world?

The pandemic has forced organizations to recognize that they need to address proximity bias to adapt their work culture to the hybrid and remote future of work.

Employees may have different office schedules: some essential employees might be there full-time, others will be there one to three days a week, and some may be fully remote. 

However, the danger of a sense of resentment building up between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ around schedule flexibility calls for a work culture that addresses such issues. Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage in the future of work need to use research-based best practices to create a culture of ‘excellence from anywhere’ to address these concerns.

This cultural best practice is based on guidance for leaders at 17 major organizations I helped guide in developing and implementing effective strategies for a work culture fit for the future of work.

Our future of work is hybrid

Surveys show that almost two-thirds of all US workers spent time working remotely during the pandemic. Moreover, two-thirds to three-quarters of surveyed employers intend to have a mainly-hybrid schedule after the pandemic ends. 

Plenty of large companies have already announced a switch to a post pandemic permanent hybrid model of one to three days of work in the office. Meanwhile, a number of big companies decided to let many or all of their remote-working employees work from home permanently.

These decisions match with worker desires, and with surveys showing that two-thirds to a quarter of all employees want a hybrid or fully remote schedule permanently even post pandemic. So organizations have to adapt their work culture to accommodate these needs.

Why have organizations failed to adapt to the future of work?

Leaders often fail to adopt best practices because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots result in poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating options. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut instead of relying on best practices. 

One of these biases is called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of appropriate practices, we tend to disregard other more appropriate alternatives. 

Trying to transpose existing ways of collaboration in “office-culture” to remote work is a prime example of functional fixedness. That’s why leaders failed to strategically address the problems arising with the abrupt transition to telework. 

Another cognitive bias, related to functional fixedness, is called the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome. It’s a leader’s antipathy towards adopting practices not invented within their organization, no matter how useful. 

Defeating these cognitive biases requires the use of research-based best practices. It means adopting a hybrid-first model with a minority fully remote. To do so successfully requires creating a new work culture well-suited for the hybrid and remote future of work.

How to protect yourself from proximity bias via the ‘excellence from anywhere’ strategy

Some organizations may need some employees to come in full-time. For example, one of my clients is a high-tech manufacturing company with over 25,000 employees. It needs many employees to be on the factory floor. 

Others may need to come in on a hybrid schedule even if they worked full-time remotely during the pandemic. A case in point: some research and development staff are able to innovate better if they can access equipment in the company’s labs.

Some others may have team leaders that want them to come in one day a week to facilitate team cohesion and collaboration, even if they can do all their work fully remotely. And still other employees have team leaders that permit them to do full-time remote work.

Such differences over flexibility have the potential to create tension between employees. Addressing these potential cultural divides is vital to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have-nots” from developing. 

Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This term refers to a flexible organization culture that takes into account the nature of an employee’s work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible.

The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy  addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation. 

Boosting such best practices helps integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows these are the most important relationships for employee morale, engagement, and retention.

By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of ‘excellence from anywhere’, you can instil in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter. 

This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite. 

Help everyone pull together to achieve shared business objectives – wherever they work

The transition to a hybrid and remote work culture in the post-pandemic recovery leads to the threat of resentment of those who have to come to the office more often to those who come less often.

Addressing such concerns requires creating a work culture of ‘excellence from anywhere’. This reframes the conversation to help everyone focus on pulling together to achieve shared business objectives and prioritizing deliverables rather than where and how you work through research-based best practices.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. 

A best-selling author, his new book is Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting,coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist with dozens of peer-reviewed articles published in academic journals.

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