Back to the office: is proximity bias actually a bias?

As organizations sort out new workplace arrangements – hybrid?; all-office? all-remote? – an interesting sub-genre of article has appeared about ‘proximity bias’.

Proximity bias is defined as follows:

An unconscious tendency to favor the people we’re physically closer to.

In flexible working environments, proximity bias heightens the risk that in-office workers will receive preferential treatment simply by spending more in-person time with their managers.
“Isolated” by ROSS HONG KONG is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Bias or rational behaviour?

A tendency to prioritize people you can see and interact with is only a ‘bias’ if it is unjustified.

To categorize such prioritization as bias, some heroic assumptions are necessary:

Assumption 1- There is no value to human face-to-face interaction. Body language, small acts of daily politeness, informal conversations, having a quick coffee together – all these are of precisely zero value in a work environment.

Assumption 2- Making an effort to co-mingle with colleagues is indicative of nothing. Getting to know the organization and the people within it have absolutely no value when it comes to possible promotions and to taking on responsibilities within an organization.

Assumption 3 – Those who work from home are as dedicated to their jobs as those who make the effort to come in.

Assumption 4- Workers are essentially machines. They are assigned specific tasks, they perform them (from home if they want to), and provided they deliver they are of identical value to workers who interact in the ways described under points 1 and 2 above.

These assumptions fly in the face of the literature in organizational science, most economic geographic literature, as well as work in psychology. Of course, none of this research rejects digital interactions, and none suggests that working from home one or two days a week is necessarily bad for the organization.

Indeed, there is some evidence that moderate levels of digital interaction increase well-being, as do some days working from home, during which focussed tasks can be performed, commute time saved, and work-life balance improved.

However, most of the literature also suggests that face-to-face interaction enhances well-being, improves communication, and allows for a more varied palette of information, knowledge and emotion to be communicated. It also facilitates group interaction, brain-storming and – in good work environments – the actual enjoyment of work.

Proximity bias is not bias: it is rational

There is value in face-to-face interaction.

Making an effort to interact in-person increases the effectiveness of communication (including of digital communication).

Workers – unlike machines – communicate in a myriad of subtle ways that cannot be captured in the digital world’s two-dimensional anesthetic1 world.

Whilst few people spent five days a week in an office before COVID (the norm seems to have been about four), and whilst office workers will spend less time in their offices post-COVID, those who choose to work principally from home should be aware that proximity bias is not, in fact, a bias: there are real advantages to regularly spending time with co-workers.

If home-workers are passed over for interesting contracts or key promotions, this will probably reflect their managers’ rational evaluation of their effectiveness within the organization.

1 esthetic (as an adjective) can mean “relating to perception by the senses“, and has only more recently been used to denote “concerning or characterized by an appreciation of beauty or good taste“. Anesthetic, by extension of the word’s original acceptation, means “relating to absence of perception by the senses”.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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