Thought for the week

The Impact of Proximity Bias and Flexible Working on a Woman’s Career

With more employees choosing to work from home, there is an increase in proximity bias in the workplace. Does remote work help women or is it leading to working from home inequality?

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Hybrid working has become one of the biggest workplace trends. Initially implemented to help protect people from catching Covid-19 in the office, it’s now a popular working model that allows employees to work from multiple locations. In a UK survey, 97% of organisations have said they are planning to implement or have already implemented hybrid working.

There are several employee advantages to not spending 5 days a week working in an office: Reduced travel costs, less time commuting, more work-life balance…

However, opting for flexible work can impact career progression, particularly for women. Part of this is due to proximity bias.

What is proximity bias?

According to the BBC, proximity bias is “an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity”. The BBC notes that it is an “evolutionary part of our cognitive decision-making process”, used as a “mental shortcut to prioritise what feels safest”.

Employees working in the office on a daily basis will have more face-to-face time with managers and company executives, increasing their social interactions and networking opportunities. Crucially, research reveals women tend to prefer remote and flexible working. If more men head to the office, women have a heightened risk of being penalised – potentially losing out on promotions and other opportunities.

The stigma of working from home

Many women prefer the option of flexible work because they believe it will ease childcare and caring responsibilities. Interestingly, partnered fathers are almost twice as likely to be refused flexible work requests – employers are more understanding of mothers needing flexibility.

Based on these statistics between mothers and fathers, it seems there is still a stigma around hybrid working – specifically, working from home.

For centuries, workers have woken up, put on their “workwear” and headed out to work. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, it was almost exclusively men who went out to the workplace to forge a career, while mothers traditionally stayed behind, running the home and looking after the children. These stereotypical gender roles still exist – the “motherhood penalty” assumes women are less dedicated and less able to maintain their careers compared to men and child-free women. The assumption also remains that men must continue to go to the office.

Hybrid working therefore, negatively impacts a woman’s career due to the old assumption that mothers need more time at home to prioritise family life – while men should continue to advance away from the home. We know from research that some employers have negative beliefs around remote work. This BBC article, for instance, notes that “office-based colleagues are often perceived to be working harder”.

How leaders can better support flexible policies

Flexible working is developing into a workplace norm. Employers have to find ways to provide the same support for people who choose hybrid working, otherwise they will be creating organisations with large inequality gaps. Employees who feel less recognised at home will likely look elsewhere for companies that value them as much as office-based staff.

1. Acknowledge proximity bias

It is important for leaders to be aware of proximity bias. As a leader, you might unknowingly be giving preferential treatment to employees you see more often. Use data to analyse the differences in tasks given to office – and remote-based workers. You may find people in the office are treated more favourably by being assigned less tasks or by being given more advanced responsibilities.  

2. Put employees on an equal level-playing field

Some companies are opting to implement widespread flexible working policies. Every employee has the same number of days spent in the office, for instance. This helps to create equal workplace opportunities.

3. Encourage managers and executives to adopt hybrid working

It’s the people at the top that have the greatest impact on company culture. By having leaders, themselves adopt hybrid working, it sets the tone that flexible working is not a hindrance or less favourable. Even opting for a couple of days a month working from home can demonstrate acceptance for hybrid workers.

4. Show the same level of trust

As mentioned above, some leaders believe staff working in the office are more hard-working. Employee surveillance software went up 50% during lockdown in 2020. Some companies are monitoring their staff through the use of remote cameras and monitoring keystrokes.

Surveillance at home can feel both intrusive and invasive. It suggests an organisation does not trust its staff; a lack of trust can be detrimental to employee engagement. Employees working from home or in the office need to be given the same level of managerial confidence.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2022
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