Does Proximity Bias Give You an Edge at Work?

Professor Emerita Kimberly Elsbach says facetime can make a difference in promotions—and more

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.

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 Professor Emerita Elsbach to discuss her expertise on proximity bias effects at work.

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