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Hybrid Work Survey: Proximity Bias May Disproportionally Affect Parents, Women and Minorities

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The hybrid, or flexible work, model has largely become the new normal. However, a new survey found that there is growing concern that “proximity bias” — favoritism toward colleagues who work together in a physical office — may lead to inequities between remote and in-office employees. It could even entrench deeper structural inequities along racial and gender lines.

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The survey, “Leveling the playing field in the new hybrid workplace,” released by the Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack, showed alarming discrepancies between who is — and isn’t — coming into the office.

The survey noted that proximity bias is exacerbated by the vastly different preferences of executives and employees, with 42% of executives reporting they work from the office three to four days a week compared to just 30% of non-executives. Meanwhile, 75% of executives currently working fully remote reported they would prefer to work from the office three or more days a week, as compared to 37% of non-executives.

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As such, proximity bias is now executives’ number one concern with respect to flexible work, with 41% citing the potential for inequities to develop between remote and in-office employees as their top concern, up from 33% last quarter, according to the survey.

“It’s past time to move beyond the ‘remote versus office‘ debate. The future of work isn’t either/or, it’s both,” Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, said in the survey. “A hybrid model can foster a more flexible and inclusive workplace, but only if leaders are intentional about establishing guardrails to ensure all employees have equal access to opportunity and can participate on a level playing field.”

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Data from the survey found that the harms of proximity bias could fall hardest on historically underrepresented employee groups, since they are opting into flexible work arrangements — and opting out of work in the office — at higher rates than their peers.

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In the U.S., 84% of Hispanic/Latinx respondents, 76% of Black respondents, and 74% of Asian/Asian American respondents reported that they’re currently working either remotely or hybrid, compared with just 67% of white respondents.

In addition, women are more likely than men to be remote workers, with 33% versus 27%. Working mothers and fathers are also more likely than non-parents to opt into flexible work arrangements, with 75% versus 63%, according to the data.

“Executives are now acknowledging that there has been a shift in the past two years, and they don’t know how to create equity in this new normal,” Ella F. Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of Ellavate Solutions, said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for organizations to reevaluate, refresh, or maybe even start over with some of their management processes, from performance evaluation to diversity and inclusion. No one wants to hear that, but it’s not effective for us to shift over old models to this new way of working. A blank slate can be a real opportunity.”

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The survey noted that to combat proximity bias and ensure equity between remote and in-office employees, leaders need to intentionally align on principles and guardrails that outline how the hybrid model will will work at their organizations.

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