MILWAUKEE — As many workplaces re-open, not everyone is returning to the office.
There are concerns that not being in close proximity to your boss or company leaders might hurt someone’s career. There is a term for it. It is called proximity bias. The BCC defines it as unconsciously giving preferential treatment to those in your immediate vicinity.
“Twenty-five percent I work from home,” said Candace Bentley, a nurse practitioner who also has young children. “The fact I am able to get (my children) to and from school, I am just around a little bit more. I just like doing that because my son is a little bit younger.”
Bentley considers herself a hybrid worker. She says most of the time she works in an office as nurse practitioner, but part of the time she works remotely doing tele-health. She says being full-time in an office would be a burden for her and her work.
“I wouldn’t be able to offer the patients what I offer the patients. It would definitely impact my work-life balance,” said Bentley.
According to a Pew Research poll, 64 percent of workers say it is easier to balance work and personal life, but 60 percent feel less connected to coworkers. Feeling disconnected is part of the reason Donyan Robinson says he would much rather be in an office with his team.
“We experienced both so far. So far, I like going into the office,” said Robinson.
He says before the pandemic hit, he was getting promoted every year at his job. But things stalled for Robinson when he worked from home.
He believes his most recent promotion came because he was back in the office in front of his supervisors.
“Over Zoom or a phone call there is so much other stuff going on, but when you are in-person, your boss sees you. Your boss sees the difference,” said Robinson.
According to a Harris Poll of workers, people of color and women are more likely to want to work from home. That survey found 52 percent of women wanted remote work as a long-term option, and 52 percent of Black workers thought working from home was better for their career.
Jim Morgan works for MRA, the Management Association, which is a non-profit that advises businesses across Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa in Human Resource matters. He says work from home likely isn’t going away, but companies can navigate around it.
“I think companies are having to be more intentional now about not out of sight, out of mind, because a lot of people are out of sight. It means really focusing on if we've got a new project, if we're looking for a new leader that we're including everyone, not just the people we see come through the door every morning,” said Morgan.
Morgan says work from home can be equitable in a company. But, he says employers need to overly communicate with workers who might miss out on hallway conversations.
“From an employer's point of view, it's the clarity of what they're doing. So, if I'm looking to promote someone and we want a new vice president, I need to look at what are the skill sets and be clear about that to everyone, so that regardless of whether you're in the building or not in the building, those are measurable objectives based on their past performance now and their skill set. When I make a decision, whether they were sitting down the hall from me or sitting across the country from me, I'm making the decision based on those same criteria,” said Morgan.
However, University of Wisconsin Madison clinical professor of consumer sciences and business consultant Christine Whelan says no matter how fair employers think they are being, there is an unconscious bias that exists in humans.
“When we see people, we tend to trust them more. You can think of it as potentially a sort of quirk of our evolution. But humans are really social animals and an isolation is like a fatal curse for us. So being part of a Community means that people see what you do, they see what you don't do, then you become a trusted person,” said Whelan.
Whelan says working away from the office can create a proximity bias or an unconscious bias. The people who are most likely to be hurt by it are people who might need the option to work from home the most, including women, people with childcare issues and people of color.
“I worry that rather than creating a choice to make people actually have an equal and legitimate choice, what we're doing is setting up a catch 22. Whereas, if you are already one of those marginal folks in the workforce, you choose to work from home and then, in fact, you may be further marginalized and passed over for promotions,” said Whelan.
This issue probably won’t go away. According to Gallup research, work from home is likely to be the norm instead of the exception.
Some business experts say the best way around this is to make sure everyone has the same level of participation. If some people are remote and others are in the office, meetings should still be held virtually.