The ability to work remotely has become beneficial to many workers since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people into their homes. Now, more than two years into the pandemic, as employers try to bring employees back into the office, workers are pushing for a model that allows them to work from home at least part-time. A recent report by Microsoft found that 52% of workers are currently switching to a hybrid work model or full-time remote job. But while hybrid work seems like a good middle ground for some people, it has its own set of problems, especially for BIPOC workers.
One of the biggest issues remote workers deal with is proximity bias. Proximity bias occurs when companies favor employees working and living closer to the workplace, giving them more opportunities to succeed simply because they’re physically present. Today 92 million Americans work remotely, but companies still prefer in-office workers.
“This stems from human nature,” said Suki Sandhu, the CEO and founder of INvolve and Audeliss, organizations that advocate for workplace diversity. “We are social creatures and crave personal contact and association.”
In 2021, 80% of workers who report workplace discrimination said it happened via remote work channels like video conferencing tools and online messaging apps. This happens because in-office workers are often viewed as more productive, while employers may neglect remote employees despite their equal or higher productivity levels. A 2015 Stanford study found that remote employees had higher productivity levels, yet lost out on promotions compared to in-office staff. Studies in the UK have also found a similar pattern. Remote workers were far less likely to be promoted over a five-year period, showing proximity bias is prevalent beyond the U.S.
There’s a reason for this: Several studies show that people are socialized to like a person more if they spend face-to-face time with them. Research by the University of California and UNC Chapel Hill found that simply being seen in the office regularly can result in a leg up over a remote worker, regardless of productivity.
“Think of it this way: who are you more comfortable loaning money to, your next-door neighbor or someone you rarely see who lives on the other side of town?” said Marlon Weems, publisher of The Journeyman, a newsletter that explores the intersection of the economy, politics, and race.
This adversely affects remote workers’ career prospects and mental health. A 2017 Harvard study of more than 1,000 employees shows remote workers felt left out and ignored. Take, for instance, Arya R., an Asian American accountant based in Nevada who worked remotely at a tech company during the pandemic and eventually quit her job due to increasing discrimination.
“Biases like this make remote workers feel unwanted,” she said. “I always gave my best at work and outperformed my colleagues several times, but my in-office colleagues were a part of the ‘in-culture’ and so more likely to be considered for promotion,”
Her experience is echoed by Lakshmia Marie, a Chicago-based remote employee who worked in product management and marketing and eventually left her job to launch The Role Getters, a career-advisory company for marginalized workers.
“I was working with a very high-profile company and many of the team members were distributed but the accolades and attention went only to the hybrid folks,” she said. “They were told things in advance and advised to not tell the remote workers. They also were given way more support than the remote team.”
People of color experience bias more severely
While proximity bias affects everyone, people of color and members of other marginalized communities are more likely to experience it. BIPOC workers often face increased discrimination at work and proximity bias as they’re more likely to prefer working from home.
“Employees of color desire remote and hybrid positions at a higher rate than their white colleagues for various reasons, which include, but are not limited to avoiding toxic work environments, work-life balance, protecting their mental, physical, and emotional health, the desire of more flexibility in when and where they work, working parents opting into remote work due to the flexibility these positions affords them, etc.,” said Shontel Cargill, a licensed therapist and regional clinic director at Thriveworks. “If business leaders aren’t proactively engaging people from communities outside of their own, it can result in career opportunities only being filtered to people with similar backgrounds,” she added.
For women of color who work remotely, finding advancement opportunities can be even more challenging. Several studies show women of color are most likely to experience harassment in the workplace and shoulder most of the responsibilities for child care and domestic work, which makes them more likely to prefer remote work. Women of color already make less money than white women and men, exacerbating the effects of proximity bias.
Remote employees already struggle to be heard over onsite workers, but it can be even more challenging for women and people of color. A survey by Catalyst shows that 45% of women business leaders report it’s difficult for women to speak up during virtual meetings, with 1 in 5 women feeling ignored and overlooked by coworkers during virtual calls.
“Due to a combination of other biases like affinity or appearance bias, we like to spend time with and feel more attached more quickly to people who are similar to us in background, belief, or appearance,” Sandhu said. “When leadership and management profiles are predominantly male and white, proximity bias is just another layer which can negatively impact diverse groups.”
This means management and leadership positions will continue to include white, male, and non-disabled workers who have the privilege of choosing where they work. A Future Forum survey examined by FiveThirtyEight shows white men are the most likely to desire in-person office work while only half of the Black men want the same. This means white males are the least likely to experience proximity bias compared with women, people of color, and disabled workers. Experts say this kind of ongoing pile-up of discrimination can have long-lasting effects.
“The scars of race discrimination that these employees face often never heal,” said Davida S. Perry, an employment attorney handling discrimination and sexual harassment cases. “I have represented several clients who have reported the humiliation of being passed over for promotions in favor of their white counterparts who have no more experience or qualifications than they do.” This only gets worse with remote work as remote workers from marginalized communities can be “overlooked and likely develop low morale, suffer from a loss of confidence and possibly leave the job or the workforce altogether,” she added.
What can help
Bias is a major problem across all industries, but there are ways to minimize the damage. First, awareness can help.
“Knowing there are biases such as proximity bias present in an organization means individuals and leaders are likely to question themselves more regularly,” Sandhu said. “Are business leaders and decision-makers favoring certain individuals because they spend more time with them in person? Is it the quality of their work that makes them seem qualified, or do the casual conversations and workplace chit-chat mean recency, affinity, and proximity bias are at play?”
Building stronger relationships can also help combat worker disconnection.
”More frequent check-ins with remote workers might prove helpful,” Perry said. “Meetings should be held over a platform like Zoom so that remote workers can fully participate,” she added. “Implementing a central messaging platform like Slack can also enable all workers, onsite and remote, to remain in contact with each other.”
Finally, having standardized processes for hiring and promotions are critical. Establishing inclusive procedures and well-functioning collaborative working platforms that are tailored to remote workers can help create more effective communication.
“Proximity bias, and many other biases, are much less powerful if everyone is being assessed by a standard set of criteria based on their work and performance, rather than whether they had a great chat with you while making a cup of tea,” Sandhu said.