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How to overcome proximity bias in performance reviews for hybrid teams

November 15, 2022, 12:51 PM UTC
A black woman in a yellow sweater and wearing headphones attends a virtual meeting on Zoom.
Managers should schedule virtual check ins to guarantee equal face time with remote workers.
Morsa Images via Getty Images

Good morning! Paolo Confino here, filling in for Amber, who’s at Fortune’s MPW Next Gen Summit.

The rules of hybrid work are confusing. Remote workers aren’t sure if working from home is tolerated, frowned upon, or just downright career suicide, while regular office-goers subtly resent those who get to wake up one minute before their first meeting. But there’s another cause for tension between the two factions: proximity bias, which can rear its head in end-of-year performance reviews.

Mitigating such bias requires that managers regularly communicate with remote reports. 

“You want to demonstrate that remote work is as important and seen as in-office work,” says Prezi CEO Jim Szafranksi. Doing so helps alleviate employee insecurities about who’s in the boss’s good graces and concerns about whether they’re secretly judged for working from home. 

Managers should schedule weekly performance evaluations to guarantee equal facetime with in-person and remote employees, and those conversations should focus solely on deliverables to ensure job performance is the only factor taken into account, says Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams

Szafranksi says remote workers may need more one-on-one time with their managers than their in-person counterparts to combat the effects of proximity bias. “Regular manager-staff communication between reviews is essential, so employees know they’re not just being judged on their performance in a few Zooms or in meetings when they give a full presentation.” While remote work provides managers visibility into their direct reports’ outcomes, it doesn’t give them a look into their process, additional work they might be taking on, or how they’re feeling in the workplace. Weekly reviews should include time for remote employees to evaluate their performance and walk through their day-to-day work.

For formal performance reviews that happen quarterly or annually, Szafranski recommends that managers include feedback from colleagues who work closely with their direct reports. This gives leaders a fuller picture of an employee’s total contributions to the company rather than just the ones they notice. 

Addressing proximity bias is “critical for hiring the best talent and retaining your superstars,” Szafranski says. But what often happens is employees who prefer to work remotely feel obligated to come into the office because of real or perceived social pressure and resent it, bringing down morale for everyone else. 

If left unchecked, proximity bias, like any other bias, leads to a workplace culture that doesn’t reward merit, which is simply bad business. 

Paolo Confino
paolo.confino@fortune.com

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