Managers need to put in place procedures to make the return to the office as streamlined as possible, and ensure those who return to the office more frequently are not treated more favourably.
There is an unconscious tendency to favour those who we see or work closely with on a regular basis. This could be to the detriment of those who work permanently or more frequently from home. This is now being referred to as “proximity bias”.
As more organisations adopt a more flexible approach to home working, they need to be more alive to the challenges this brings. Recognising that proximity bias may be an issue is the first step in addressing it.
There are ways to mitigate proximity bias. Managers should be encouraged to have regular conversations with staff, both those in the office and those Working From Home (WFH). Taking a more formal approach to this, for example diarising regular catch ups, may be needed to ensure that no-one is inadvertently missed.
Businesses could consider holding all meetings by video conference, regardless of whether people are in the office or not. This is to stop those people who are gathered together in a room dominating the conversation to the exclusion of those dialling in remotely.
Whoever is chairing hybrid meetings must take more control of the flow of the meeting than is needed when everyone is present in the same room. It is harder for someone attending virtually to interject or participate, so the chairperson needs to ensure that everyone is included. Those attending virtually are much more likely to “switch off” and become disengaged as a result of a discussion taking place across the table.
It is also important to create an environment of trust, in which employees feel safe to raise issues relating to their working patterns and the return to the office – for example, what’s working well and what’s not.
It is worth putting in place an objective system for the allocation of work, rather than simply passing it those who can be seen in the office. This benefits everyone, as it avoids swamping those in the office, as well as recognising the value of those working remotely. The person in the office might not be the best person for the job.
Whilst it might be easier for a manager to hand work out in this way as it “gets it off their desk”, it may mean that the work is not undertaken by the person at the right level and with the right level of expertise. It may also lead to disgruntled staff – both those in the office and those WFH. Any cultural issues should be addressed to avoid an “us and them” scenario which divides office workers from remote workers.
Managers of teams will need to work more closely together to ensure a collective view and approach is taken to assessing individual and team performance and workload.
There should be an equal opportunity for everyone to adopt a flexible working model. Managers should lead by example by continuing to WFH regularly to show it is acceptable and that employees do not have to come into the office every day.
Putting in place the proper processes to manage hybrid working is key, not only to avoid proximity bias but to stop situations escalating. If managers do not implement effective hybrid working, it could lead to unrest or disagreements between staff and, in a worst-case scenario, potential claims for discrimination.
These could arise if, for example, women who decide to WFH more frequently miss out on work opportunities which may be directed to men who are physically present in the office.
Proximity bias may also result in those being present in the office being more likely to be put forward for promotion. If this results in more men being promoted then this could also adversely impact on the gender pay gap.
Done right, hybrid working is a huge opportunity to improve the work-life balance for workers, but employers must remain alive to the dangers of not addressing its challenges early on.
Helen Corden is a Partner and employment law specialist, Pinsent Masons