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Hybrid work: How ‘proximity bias’ can lead to favouritism

August 22, 2021
Borderless Leadership

While financial institutions around the world have called for a full return to the office in the coming months, Synchrony Financial is moving in the opposite direction. The firm, based in Connecticut, US, has told its leadership team that they cannot, in fact, return to the office five days a week. Instead, they’re required to work at least one day from home.

DJ Casto, chief human resources officer at the consumer financial-services company, says one of the main reasons they adopted this rule was to put home-working and office-working staff on a more equal playing field. “From a leadership perspective, we want to make sure we look like we’re supporting both groups,” he explains, noting that 85% of employees in a company-wide survey expressed a desire to work from home full time.

To address concerns that those same workers might feel pressured to come back into the office to get more face time with their bosses (and thus more recognition), Casto says leadership needed to role-model the non-traditional plan. “The executive leadership team has a lot of influence on the behaviours of the workforce,” he explains. “So, we said, if we set the tone at the top of the house to say, ‘it’s OK [to work from home],’ and candidly, ‘we’re going to do it, too,’ then it gives people a lot more trust.”

Synchrony is now working to ensure all employees – whether in the office or at home – feel seen. “What we’ve told our leaders who have chosen to come back to our hubs is that they have a responsibility to have this remote-first mindset,” says Casto, adding that they should make sure remote-working employees keep them honest in terms of engagement.

Companies like Synchrony who are moving to a hybrid-work model are grappling with how to best ensure workers physically present in the office don’t reap benefits due to their proximity to bosses and colleagues. Academics call this phenomenon ‘proximity bias’, which is an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. Once a matter of location within the office, the lines of what define proximity are now evolving, leaving workers and leaders in search of new ways of tackling the issue to guarantee that those who choose to work from home remain both an included part of the workforce and on track for promotions.

Accidental favouritism

Proximity bias, like any bias, is a natural instinct. It’s an evolutionary part of our cognitive decision-making process that we’ve used for generations as a mental shortcut to prioritise what feels safest. Yet “that prioritisation of safety doesn’t always lead to accurate judgements”, explains Ali Shalfrooshan, a UK-based occupational psychologist at workplace-solutions provider PSI Services. Instead, we end up making decisions based on biases rather than knowledge or data.

By Mark Johanson

Source: bbc.com

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