Woman getting congratulated on promotion at work

Head back to work to score that promotion

The perils of proximity bias

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
4 minute read
Woman getting congratulated on promotion at work

When COVID-19 first unstrapped employees from their office cubicles, a raft of new freedoms were quickly realised and enjoyed.

Remote work released employees from the grasp of senseless office gossip, the manacles of the micromanager, the curse of time-draining commutes and the perils of the much-maligned open-plan offices.

Yet while there is clearly much to be gained from remote work, there are growing fears those who thrive with their new-found autonomy might end up missing out on another liberty: the freedom to advance their career.

If you are working from the home office some or all of the time and hope to continue your climb up the career ladder, it might be a good idea to hot-foot it back to your office desk.

The unspoken challenge of proximity bias

Proximity bias, which is described as the tendency for people in positions of authority to show favouritism or give preferential treatment to those workers who are physically close by, can derail remote workers’ efforts to be promoted.

It used to be a career issue that affected only a few.

However, with many of us now embracing the remote work movement, the challenge of being able to climb the ladder from home has become a hot topic.

It is not impossible to advance your career while working from home – but the climb up the ladder is somewhat steeper.

Proximity plays a role in promotions, with office-bound employees deriving unseen career-building benefits because of their physical closeness to colleagues and, particularly, their bosses.

The more an employee has “face time” with a supervisor, the more likely they will receive feedback, be recognised for their achievements and be able to take advantage of incidental, career-enhancing opportunities that might arise.

At the same time, managers are more likely to bond with those who they spend more time with, perceive them as more engaged and more reliable and provide them with work opportunities that develop new skills.

They are also likely to make the antiquated assumption that people in the office are more productive than those at home.

By way of contrast, those working remotely are likely to be inadvertently excluded from important meetings, overlooked for development opportunities and less likely to be in front of their manager’s mind when promotional or new roles become available.

Of course, those working remotely can ensure they have plenty to say during virtual meetings. But it is a sad reality that the colleague who is around to have a coffee with the boss after the meeting is more likely to get ahead.

The bottom line is there is a tendency to value colleagues who are physically present more highly than those who are connected remotely.

Out of sight, out of mind

Unsurprisingly, the situation can be even direr when employees form part of a very small minority who work remotely or in different time zones.

The 2022 Women at Work Survey produced by professional services firm Deloitte found that 60 per cent of women working in a hybrid environment felt they were excluded from important meetings.

Almost half did not receive the exposure they needed to the leaders who would ultimately influence their career trajectory.

To make matters worse, it is likely that any power imbalances between the office and the home have ended up adding significantly to the career advancement challenges many women already faced prior to the pandemic.

It is worth pointing out that not everyone wants to be promoted. For those people, proximity bias will remain a non-issue.

And some critics say the financial benefits of career advancement – a pay rise – are cancelled out by having to spend more time in the office.

For some, an office-bound promotional role might go hand-in-pocket with the added costs of commuting, office attire and canteen lunches.

Nonetheless, the modern workplace must work towards a level playing field by eradicating what some workplace experts have labelled as “hybrid inequity”.

Responsibility for ensuring promotional opportunities are equally available to those working remotely and those in the office should sit with those in charge.

Managing the balance

Leaders must become more aware of biases that can emerge when a workforce is split across the office and remote locations and take steps to mitigate the impact of such unfairness.

They will need to give serious consideration to actions that ensure those working remotely can enjoy the conveniences of working from home without compromising their career ambitions.

Individuals working remotely can also take steps to support their own career advancement by becoming self-advocates.

In the absence of regular physical face-to-face interaction, they will need to be proactive in making themselves as available and visible as possible.

It will take time for most workplaces to address the career inequities that exist between office-based and remote workers.

In the meantime, if you are working remotely and in a hurry to climb the career ladder, remember that in many workplaces you will need to be seen more to be appreciated.

Put another way, out of sight means out of mind – especially when it comes to promotions and salary increases.