Proximity Bias: A Top Concern for Nonprofit Executives on Hybrid and Remote Work
A January 2022 Slack survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders showed that the top concern for nonprofit and other executives regarding hybrid and remote work is “proximity bias.” Namely, 41% are worried about the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality between office-centric, hybrid and fully remote employees.
The difference in time spent in the office leads to concerns ranging from decreased career mobility for those who spend less facetime with their supervisor to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work.
So why haven’t nonprofit leaders addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias earlier? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences of time spent in the office. After all, an important factor attracting employees to nonprofits is a better culture and higher employee engagement, compared to the more ruthless but higher remunerated corporate environment.
Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose due to mental blind spots called cognitive biases, which impede effective decision-making and cause leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model.
Nonprofit leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “excellence from anywhere.” This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee's work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible.
The “excellence from anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, collaboration, and innovation regardless of where you work. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve nonprofit mission-based outcomes: The location doesn’t matter.
This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.
But what about facetime with the boss? To address this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes, large-scale quarterly or even annual performance evaluations to much more frequent weekly or biweekly, low-stakes, brief one-on-one performance evaluation check-ins.
Employees agree on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals with their supervisor. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report to their boss on how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation and proposed goals for next week. A day before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.
At the one-on-one, the supervisor coaches the employee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the goals for next time, and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation.
This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting mitigates concerns about facetime since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses the underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
Smaller nonprofits with only a couple of staff members can have the chair of the board serve as the supervisor in this performance evaluation. Instead of the annual performance evaluation of the executive director, a small nonprofit can have the chair evaluate the executive director every two weeks. Of course, the chair is a volunteer position and if the chair is too busy for every two weeks, once a month will work, but no less frequently than that.
Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee morale, engagement and retention, so important in this time of the Great Resignation.
The transition to a hybrid and remote work culture in the post-pandemic recovery leads to the threat of resentment over flexibility and worries over career standing due to facetime with the boss. Addressing such concerns requires creating a work culture of “excellence from anywhere.” This reframes the conversation to help everyone focus on pulling together to achieve shared mission-based objectives and prioritizing deliverables rather than where and how you work through research-based best practices. It also involves transitioning from traditional quarterly or annual performance evaluations to weekly or biweekly brief one-on-ones, giving all employees personalized facetime with the boss and a constant knowledge of where they stand at all times, alleviating career mobility concerns.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.