What Effect Does Proximity Bias Have in Today's Workplace?

Graduate School of Management Researchers Says Facetime Can Make Difference

A man in a white shirt and black glasses and a woman in a yellow shirt with blonde hair look at the phone and tablet in their hands. In the background, a standing woman speaks to a man sitting at his desk in an office.
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Quick Summary

  • With employers accommodating those who want to work from home, the new workplace is a combination of some people present regularly at work and many others who come infrequently
  • It means managers see some people regularly and others less so

After staying away from downtown offices for two years — and sometimes having moved out of town — many employees express continued reluctance to show up in person at work five days a week.

Cities around the U.S. have reported office occupancy rates of about 40%, suggesting some people are physically present at work while others are not.

A man with grey hair smiles at the camera. He is wearing black glasses and a black suit.

Interestingly, while there are discussions going on about how to bring employees back to their offices, or how to deal with employees who are willing to quit rather than come back to the office, an overlooked issue that has received little attention is the possibility that those who do show up to work may get more attention than those who don’t.

Phrases like “water cooler talk,” “accidental collisions,” and “serendipitous connections” are used to describe the benefits of being physically present at work, but these phrases were coined when everyone was expected at work.

With employers accommodating those who want to work from home, the new workplace is a combination of some people present regularly at work and many others who come infrequently. It means managers see some people regularly and others less so.

How does this affect career progress for those who don’t show up physically to work every day?

Professor Emerita Kimberly Elsbach at the Graduate School of Management has published extensive research on the impact of "proximity bias," where people physically present at work enjoy career benefits that may not be available to those who stay away physically from workplaces.

She says seeing people every day at work increases familiarity with them, develops a greater liking for them, and makes them more salient as potential choices for new opportunities that come up at work.

The Future Forum recently interviewed Elsbach to discuss her expertise on proximity bias effects at work.

“There’s lots of research showing that just being around somebody a lot makes you more familiar with that person, and that — unless there’s something really offensive about them — familiarity leads to an increase in liking,” said Elsbach in the interview. 

Elsbach’s research explores how an employee’s career prospects hinge less on their output and more on the amount of facetime they can put in with their colleagues and bosses. In a study published in 2010, Elsbach asked 60 corporate office workers to read a short description of a hypothetical colleague who is always at their desk, both during and outside of normal work hours. She then gave participants a list of 15 words and asked them to circle which words had appeared in the description they’d read. Participants frequently circled “dependable,” “responsible,” “committed,” and “dedicated” — even though those words hadn’t actually appeared in the written descriptions.

A woman with brown hair and wearing a blue shirt and a blue necklace smiles at the camera.
Kimberly Elsbach

“This is called a ‘misidentification task,’” Elsbach explains. “When you misidentify words in the description that weren’t actually there, it’s a sign that you have unconsciously or spontaneously attributed those traits to the person. We found strong support for our hypothesis that if you are seen in the office more often — just seen, as in the person perceiving you has no information about your performance and doesn’t know what you’re actually doing — you could be playing video solitaire, for all they know — but if you’re just visible at work, you were rated much higher for attributes like ‘committed,’ ‘reliable,’ ‘dependable,’ and ‘dedicated.’”

These traits, Elsbach points out, are commonly found on performance appraisals. So the facetime bias “could actually make a difference in things like promotions. But it has nothing to do with your actual output. And managers don’t even know they’re doing it. That’s why we call it a bias.”

In a later study of employee evaluation methods at the UC Davis Medical School, Elsbach observed this dynamic in the wild: Though department policies encouraged working remotely and taking leaves of absence, leaders acknowledged taking facetime into account when evaluating their employees.

Right now, proximity bias threatens to undercut progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion for remote workers. It won’t happen automatically, but with commitment and attention, executives can help make sure that the mass transition to flexible work is an opportunity to build a more equal, healthier, and more efficient future for tens of millions of workers worldwide.

Read the full blog on Future Forum here.

Unnava is the Michael and Joelle Hurlston Dean and Professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management

(Launched by Slack, the Future Forum is a consortium focused on building a way of working that is flexible, inclusive and connected.)

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