Overcoming proximity bias: Will remote work cost you a promotion?

May 13, 2024

3 mins

Overcoming proximity bias: Will remote work cost you a promotion?
Selin Bucak

Freelance Journalist

Studies suggest that people physically closer to their bosses have a better chance of getting promoted. But if that’s the case, what can those who work remotely do to make sure they can advance their careers? Last May, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said employees’ careers could suffer due to working remotely. He was not the first leader of a massive company to make such a claim, nor will he be the last.

The likes of Twitter’s Elon Musk and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff have also previously warned about the consequences of working remotely. Together, these leaders run companies with hundreds of thousands of people. So, are they right? Does working from home negatively impact people’s careers? If it’s true, what can employees do to overcome this issue without returning to the office full-time?

Blame it on proximity bias

According to figures from Live Data Technologies, remote workers are getting promoted 31% less frequently than people who work in the office at least part-time. They also found that when working from home people receive less mentorship, particularly women. That disadvantages quite a big group of people, as recent statistics released by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that nearly 20% of all employees with a college degree or higher worked fully remotely.

It is called the proximity bias. It refers to managers’ tendency to give preferential treatment to employees they see more often, which disadvantages remote workers. Following the pandemic, this has become a bigger issue. A study by SHRM for example found that two-thirds of business leaders think remote workers are easier to replace than those who come into the office.

Is hybrid work the answer?

“I think definitely if we’re comparing fully remote to working in the office, then you definitely have more chances overall to be promoted, to work on projects, to develop your networking within the company and with your customers, clients,” says Emma Holmick, organizational psychologist and consultant. In her opinion, hybrid working is much better if you want to advance your career.

“Fully remote I would not recommend in any respect. For the people and for the company. When you think about it, people who work in large companies have made some decision in their life where they don’t want to work independently,” she explains. “Generally, people who work in big companies actually like things in a company, the rituals, the teamwork.”

That’s why she suggests employees go into the office for two to three days a week. However, for hybrid working to work well and not disadvantage any employees, it has to be done properly, with the company setting out its expectations and policies in writing. If you do that, that’s going to help you be seen. “Out of sight out of mind is true, that proximity bias is unconscious.”

So, what can workers do?

First off, use the days that you are in the office strategically. Make sure they count, and make sure you get facetime with your manager. According to Holmick, It’s important that you don’t go for two weeks without seeing your boss. Then, make sure to build your network in other departments. For instance, you could have lunch with a supplier or other people in the company, who will tell you things they wouldn’t normally tell you in a formal call or meeting.

Workers should also accept that they need to look after their own image, be responsible for being seen, and have a LinkedIn page that’s up to date. Finally, if they wish to move up the corporate ladder, employees should seize all of the opportunities for visability that they can, such as joining team meetings in person or giving presentations and participating in events.

“This for me is important particularly for team leaders, managers, and mid-managers. They’re allowed in many companies to have two days where they work remotely, but a lot don’t even take the two days, because they want to be close to their teams, they want to see their workers on the floor.” Holmick notes that “They feel they want to be exemplary by being there, and they get things solved much better when they’re in person. As a result, it’s going to be better for that manager and for their career.”

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