Get Ahead

96% of bosses say they give in-office employees more recognition—how to combat 'proximity bias'

Fotostorm | E+ | Getty Images

The most ardent supporters of returning to the office have extolled the benefits of face-time: spontaneous brainstorms by the coffee maker, random run-ins with higher-ups, networking in the elevator. 

As more companies adopt hybrid work arrangements, with teams split between in-person and remote employees, a pressing question arises: How important is it, really, to be clocking in face-time with your bosses and co-workers? 

New research suggests that it can matter — a lot. About 96% of executives say that they notice and value employees' contributions made in the office far more than work done from home, according to a Sept. 27 report from workplace platform Envoy, which surveyed 1,000 employees and 250 executives in the U.S. 

While an overwhelming majority of executives place greater value on in-office contributions, 42% of employees believe their bosses notice their remote contributions as much as their work in the office. 

Proximity bias — the idea that leaders favor employees who are in the office more often for promotions and pay raises — is unquestionably real, and as more companies return to the office, the problem is "going to get worse," Annette Reavis, Envoy's chief people officer, tells CNBC Make It

"Humans don't change as easily as we'd like to think they do," Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) adds. "Many leaders have operated this way, relying on having their teams in an office, for all of their professional lives, and even after three years of remote work, many of them never got their heads wrapped around the permanence of this new way of working." 

There's a difference in opinions, however, among executives and employees on the importance of face-time. Envoy found that a greater percentage of female executives (8%) notice employees' remote contributions as much as in-office contributions compared to their male counterparts (3%).

Gen Z employees were the most aligned with executives, with 73% of Gen Z employees believing that their onsite contributions are noticed more, while just 56% of workers from different generations agreed. 

How to create a more inclusive hybrid culture 

Examples of proximity bias can range from unintentionally excluding remote employees from meetings held in the office to offering projects for development opportunities to on-site employees first. 

Leaders have the most power to reduce proximity bias by introducing more inclusive practices that consider remote employees' capabilities and needs and being mindful of their employees' contributions no matter where they work, Reavis says. 

She encourages managers to set equitable, transparent performance and salary review processes anchored on clear goals and metrics, instead of behavior, that both in-person and remote employees can achieve. 

Reavis also recommends setting firm start and end times for meetings so remote colleagues don't feel "left out" of hallway conversations, and if a spontaneous innovation session happens across cubicles or in the lunchroom, call your remote employee or fill them in after the fact. 

The same rule applies to workers with remote teammates, Taylor adds. "Sometimes we forget that we have colleagues who are not physically present," he explains. "Managers and employees need to be very intentional about including their peers who aren't there in the office culture."

Before meetings with remote and in-person colleagues, Taylor will write a reminder on a Post-It note and stick it on his computer to remind himself to highlight a positive contribution of one of his remote colleagues or ask one of them a question. 

Remote employees can also do their part to combat proximity bias, Taylor says, whether it's by scheduling weekly or monthly virtual coffee dates with your co-workers or introducing yourself to higher-ups over email and sharing what you've been working on. 

It's too soon to tell what the long-term impacts of proximity bias will be, but Reavis fears that remote employees' careers could take a hit if most, or all, of their team is in the office — especially for women and people of color, who are more inclined to pursue remote opportunities. 

"People are choosing to be remote with the expectation that their career will move at the same pace as their in-person colleagues," Reavis says. "If proximity bias persists, it could damage their career advancement without them understanding why … and that worries me the most."

Check out:

These are the top 10 best employers in the world—and Amazon isn't one of them

'It's a disastrous situation': Women leaders are leaving companies at the highest rate ever

Flexible work arrangements can help companies become more diverse and inclusive—here's how

Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter

How I retired at 36 with $3 million in California
How I retired at 36 with $3 million in California