The pandemic completely reshaped work as we know it. Suddenly, employees began working from home full-time, and companies had to adapt on the fly. Some companies did quite well with the transition, while others struggled.
And now, as the pandemic is being put behind us, many employers are working hard to get employees back into the office. As of the week following Labor Day, office usage in 10 major metro areas was at about 50% of pre-pandemic levels. That’s the highest since the pandemic began.
However, that still means there are a lot of employees working from home.
Perhaps not coincidentally, as more and more employers struggle to wrangle their employees back into the office, the “quiet quitting” trend has garnered mainstream attention. For those not yet familiar with the term, it’s the idea that workers will no longer go above and beyond their job description.
And who are the most likely to “quiet quit?” According to Civic Science, it’s remote workers.
So what’s going on? On one hand, employees, by and large, wish to remain remote, or at least on a hybrid schedule that will keep them at home the majority of the time. Multiple studies have shown that remote workers are happier than those in-office full-time.
If that’s true, why are they more likely to quiet quit? One possible explanation is proximity bias.
What is proximity bias?
While many remote workers are living the dream working from home with no 2-hour commute, no boss looking over their shoulder, and more flexibility in their schedules, the fact is it’s not perfectly easy or equitable for many. All things equal, between an onsite and remote employee, in-office workers may be more likely to be:
- included in important meetings
- given special assignments
- awarded promotions
- rated higher on performance reviews
This is due to a phenomenon known as “proximity bias,” which is the tendency to give preferential treatment to those who are geographically close to us.
How does that play out in the hybrid workplace?
The fact is that workers who come to the office are often seen as more serious about their job than remote workers, even though their at-home counterparts are likely to put in more hours. And since they get facetime with the executives in the office, they’re constantly on their minds, so to speak.
Due to proximity bias, remote workers are inherently at a disadvantage. When working remotely, you not only miss out on those face-to-face meetings, but you also lack the passive facetime that in-office workers get. Your supervisor doesn’t see you sitting at your desk as they walk down the hall. They don’t see you staying late or showing up early—all the things that subconsciously make managers think you’re working hard.
What can employers do to combat proximity bias?
The majority of managers probably are not even aware they’re guilty of proximity bias, since it is largely subconscious.
In the episode “Empathy and Inclusivity in the Workplace” by TalentLMS’ podcast series, Keep It Simple, Poornima Luthra says people think bias is always bad. But that’s a problem because we all have biases, and we shouldn’t think being biased makes someone a bad person.
So, the first step is for employers to train managers on proximity bias. Poornima also discusses that raising awareness about bias isn’t sufficient; it’s essential to give practical tools. Training should provide solutions, not just awareness. It’s like taking people to a cliff without a parachute. Strategies to block and address bias in real situations are necessary.
Employers should also be encouraged to think about ways they can avoid it when making decisions affecting remote workers. For example, if a manager is considering who to invite to an important meeting, they should make a deliberate effort to include remote employees. And when it’s time for performance reviews, employers should be sure to consider the work of all employees, both remote and onsite.
Managers should also create structured communication plans with remote employees. This could include the following:
- start with effective onboarding
- set periodic one-on-one meetings
- make sure remote employees attend regular work-in-progress meetings virtually
- organize regular get-togethers with team members (these can be in-person or virtual, depending on your situation)
- keep remote workers active in Slack groups or other similar internal social apps
By ensuring ongoing communication, managers will keep remote workers front and center in their minds and not allow them to become an afterthought compared to their in-office colleagues.
This makes remote workers more likely to be recognized for their work, which can lead to more positive outcomes and increase employee satisfaction.
And increased employee satisfaction can be the antidote to quiet quitting.
Can employees do anything to combat proximity bias?
While management is primarily responsible for letting proximity bias negatively impact the relationship with the remote worker, there are steps a proactive employee can take to lessen the chances of being a victim of proximity bias.
First, remote workers should remember that communication is key. Just because you’re not in the same physical space doesn’t mean you can’t keep your boss updated on your progress and ideas. Make sure to touch base regularly, either through video calls or chat messages, and be clear and concise in your updates.
It’s worth noting that your communication should be structured. Planning this out and following through is crucial for a few reasons. First of all, you need to remember that in-office workers are on a schedule. When you work in-office, your boss sees you on a recurring basis. They know what to expect, and you stay on their mind. So when working from home, you need to be seen and heard from regularly—your boss and team members need to know what to expect from you and when to expect it.
A structured communication schedule is also necessary on your end because if you don’t keep a schedule, you’ll undoubtedly get tied up and forget to check in. As a result, you’ll begin to disappear, so to speak.
Second, be proactive and take initiative. Show your boss that you’re invested in the company’s success by taking on new projects and tasks, and offering up creative solutions when problems arise. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to “go above and beyond” by taking on more work than you can manage. It just means showing initiative to be first in line when it comes to heading up projects.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. No one is expected to be an expert at everything, so if you need assistance with something, reach out to your boss or colleagues. By asking for help when needed, you’ll show that you’re willing to learn and grow—two qualities that any employer would value.
Does quiet quitting affect proximity bias?
It’s probably worth mentioning that the idea of “quiet quitting” isn’t going to do anything to combat proximity bias. On the contrary, it will only serve to reinforce the idea in a manager’s head.
Consider this: if supervisors already think their in-office workers are going above and beyond compared to the remote workers, then find signs of quiet quitting in their remote employees, well, it’s easy to see where that leads.
If employers can confront proximity bias and help managers get beyond it, remote workers may feel more valued. This can lead to more positive outcomes, and ultimately combat the need and want for employees to quiet quit in the first place.
Scott Winstead is the founder of MyElearningWorld.com, where he has covered learning management systems, online education and employee training, and remote work for the last decade.