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Fighting Proximity Bias

By George Waggott, founder, and Roberto Fonseca-Velazquez, summer law student, George Waggott Law

As a consequence of the rise of remote and hybrid working arrangements, there is a renewed conversation around the concept of “proximity bias”. In the context of employer-employee relations, "proximity bias" refers to the human tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.  On an individual level, proximity bias may cause a person to feel a closer kinship with the people they sit next to at work or in school than they do with people who do remote work.   While this may seem like a trite observation, it is an important factor for employers to be cognizant of.

Some management teams may unintentionally exclude remote workers from the most high-profile projects, insights, and relationship building. As a result, employees with remote or hybrid working arrangements may see their careers suffer as they are passed over for promotions. Therefore, some workers may feel pressured to come into the office to get “face time” with managers or executives even if their desire is to work completely remotely. So, what can companies do?

A Connecticut-based financial company, Synchrony Financial, developed a unique response to proximity bias during the pandemic. Synchrony requires all employees to work remotely at

least one day per week. The Chief Human Resources Officer, DJ Casto, at Synchrony says one of the main reasons they adopted this rule was to put home-working and office-working staff on a more level playing field. “From a leadership perspective, we want to make sure we look like we’re supporting both groups.”

Synchrony is now working to ensure all employees – whether in the office or at home – feel like they are involved and seen. “What we’ve told our leaders who have chosen to come back to our hubs is that they have a responsibility to have this remote-first mindset,” says Casto, adding that they should make sure remote-working employees keep them honest in terms of engagement. 

The experience of Synchrony suggests that there are practicable solutions that address proximity bias in a systemic way. Mitigating proximity bias does not require an employer to bring everyone back to the office all of the time. Instead, if the employer implements policies that address the potentially unequal outcomes which proximity bias might produce, there is a way to accommodate different styles and work schedules of work. Implementing a solution akin to the one adopted by Synchrony will mean having to account for distributed teams during both the big decision-making conversations and the small everyday interactions.  This could include what seem to be minor points, such as encouraging remote workers to have their camera on when video conferencing. It may also extend more broadly, to include changes to how work teams collaborate, meet and deliver their work product.

On an organizational level, leaders need to be clear about what efforts they are undertaking to minimize all types of bias, including proximity bias. This should include articulating specific expectations about when and where work gets done and an outline of the process that explains how workers will be recognized and promoted. It is important for management to remember that workers will follow their example when it comes to embracing remote and hybrid work, and the related approach to interacting with colleagues who are not always going to be proximate.

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