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Photographer: Rasmus Jurkatam/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The fear of missing out on career growth opportunities while working from home could drive many Canadians back into the office, even if they prefer a more flexible working arrangement.

Roughly one-third of Canadian employees were working remotely as of April of 2021, according to Statistics Canada. However, the fear of a “proximity bias” has the potential to reverse the trend toward more flexible work in circumstances where remote work is optional.

The feeling of proximity bias, whether real or perceived, could also inspire some employees to leave the organization, which has sweeping implications for employers, especially amid a growing talent shortage.

According to a recent ADP Canada study, nearly two-thirds of Canadian workers believe that being physically present will improve their opportunities for career advancement. More than a third also believe that workers who choose to go back to the office full time have a better chance at being offered a promotion, or receiving one faster, compared to those who work from home.

“The idea is that there is this proximity bias provided to employees that are actually physically together – sharing the same physical location – and that it would impact key aspects of how people work together, including their relationships, the social aspects, but also career advancement, which is the big scary one,” says Heather Haslam, vice-president of marketing for ADP Canada. “It might come from within, but if I perceive that pressure, then I’m going to get dressed and make the commute and put in that effort.”

While proximity bias is a concern for many workers, Ms. Haslam says it could also have negative consequences for employers as well.

She explains that employees are demanding greater flexibility, but if they feel like they can’t work from home without suffering negative career consequences it could significantly impact employee sentiment.

According to a 2020 Gallup study, there’s a direct correlation between employee sentiment and business productivity, profitability and customer satisfaction. The study also found that strong employee engagement is associated with lower absenteeism, turnover and employee safety.

“The psychology of how we feel in our workplace, whether we feel valued, we all know that drives our level of engagement, and that drives business outcomes,” Ms. Haslam says. “If we’re not aware of things like the proximity bias, we will miss out on the opportunity to actually advance the workplace and take advantage of the lessons the pandemic has provided us.”

The ADP study also found that more than half of Canadian workers and two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 want the freedom to choose where they work. Workers, however, are less likely to take advantage of those freedoms if they come with added social pressures.

“If they start to get the sense they’re falling behind because others are going in five days a week – and you know there will always be someone that will go in every day – I think that might ultimately start to erode [the appeal of] working remotely,” says Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto.

He says it might not even matter whether or not in-office workers are actually receiving preferential treatment since the perception of bias could ultimately drive behaviour.

“It may even be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mr. Schieman says. “If people are perceiving that workers who show up more, who have more face time, are rewarded differently, or promoted, or are more likely to be seen more favourably, that stuff kind of takes on its own reality.”

Mr. Schieman likens it to another optional workplace perk offered to employees in recent years – unlimited paid vacation. Many employers offered it only to discover that the stigma of missing work actually caused employees to take less time off.

“People hated that policy because it’s like, ‘let’s see what they’ll choose to do,’” he says. “It’s kind of the same thread that runs through all of this.”

Remote work is not the preferred option of every Canadian employee, but it has levelled the playing field for traditionally disadvantaged members of the work force, such as visible minorities, caregivers, and those with physical disabilities.

“You do have a marginalized population that would really benefit from remote work,” says Markita Jack, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Iterable, a customer engagement platform. Ms. Jack fears that if employers fail to address proximity bias, those marginalized populations will continue to be at a disadvantage. The key to combatting proximity bias – or even its perception – is a culture of transparency, she says

“When you think about things like proximity bias and perceived unfairness, it comes when things are mystified, or people don’t understand how decisions are made, or people don’t understand who gets what assignment and why,” Ms. Jack says. “The more you can be transparent, the more it helps reduce instances of proximity bias.”

Organizations also need to be intentional about creating equal opportunities for staff that elect to work remotely, Ms. Jack says. “As leaders, we need to incorporate things like standard one-to-ones, and if one person is remote, have them all virtually, if possible.”

Ms. Jack also recommends crafting a career development plan for each employee, with specific benchmarks and goals, to ensure those who meet performance targets are rewarded appropriately, no matter where they choose to work. “This holds you accountable as a leader, as well as the colleague in terms of their development and growth, and what that looks like for them,” she says.