Post-pandemic work structures: companies urged to guard against ‘proximity bias’

Experts say post-pandemic work structures could well be the new threat to gender transformation in the workplace.

One of the latest buzz words in the work space created by new post-pandemic set-ups is ‘Proximity Bias’ – a very real and necessary concept to guard against.

Jack Hammer Global, an executive search firm that specialising in helping companies, NPOs and private equity firms with a presence in Africa to build great leadership teams, has warned companies to guard against the notion creeping in, especially as companies and workforces continue to grapple with the issue of return-to-work, fully work-from-home and hybrid work arrangements.

“Care must be taken to ensure that this contemporary workplace challenge doesn’t further erode or even reverse gains made on the gender transformation front,” a leadership expert and Africa MD at Jack Hammer, Advaita Naidoo, said.

Naidoo explained that hybrid work trends – gathered from their data – showed that women, who typically carry additional weight on the home front, opt for more time working from home compared to men, who are more likely to return to the office full-time.

“Unfortunately, presenteeism and proximity bias have not gone away with the old paradigm of bums-on-seats as a knee-jerk productivity measure.

“Which means that managers are still inclined to reward the people they see in the office full-time, rather than considering the actual contribution of the work-from-home or hybrid employees.

“Additionally, there is also often an unspoken judgment against people who are not in the office,” she said.

Naidoo says this proximity bias is estimated to lead to a 50% reduced likelihood of the fully remote worker to be considered for a promotion.

She went on to explain that following the pandemic, domestic circumstances have changed for countless families, including those where both caregivers work full-time.

“Divorce, estrangement, and a permanent move to homeschooling for younger children, as well as the loss of support networks that previously helped with children of school-going age are.

“But, some of the examples which have led to women, for the most part, now having to juggle additional responsibilities while at the same time being expected to perform at pre-pandemic levels,” she said.

Furthermore, when promotional opportunities or project lead roles arise, women who are working at or beyond capacity, are either passed over by management or are slow to apply because they are already overburdened by their dual career or home responsibilities.

“Naturally, no manager wants to further overload someone that they think is already struggling to cope. However, what is lost from consideration here, is the fact that many career women can and do operate at a level of efficiency and hyper-productivity that is comparable to their fulltime office peers,” she continued.

Jack Hammal Global fears that the above factors are now adding up to a situation where the already meagre female leadership pipeline is not likely to improve anytime soon, which will devastate companies’ ability to effect the gender transformation in senior leadership most of them are trying to achieve.

Naidoo warned: “Companies should, therefore, urgently assess the degree to which new ways of working could be disproportionately affecting the women in the organisation, and if necessary, draft clear policies to support these women and nurture their ongoing career progress.”

In the USA, author and activist Reshma Saujani leads the Marshall Plan for Moms in recognition of the need to support women’s economic recovery and empowerment.

It aims to create sweeping changes in three focus areas: Workplaces (organising C-level executives to transform workplaces in recognition of the additional duties placed almost exclusively on mothers on the home front), Culture (through creative campaigns and compelling thought leadership, changing the way motherhood is seen and valued), and Government (working in coalition with advocacy partners to campaign for benefits including childcare and direct payments).

“Although the same issues face many South African women, local circumstances will not easily allow for a similar local plan for mothers. However, that does not mean the impact to companies falls away.

“Exhausted, overworked and under-appreciated female workforces will have the same negative impact on companies here as abroad, in terms of the bottom line as well as gender transformation. The onus, therefore, is on companies to take the initiative to ensure that those female leaders they previously identified for career progression do not fall off the radar, and that promising young female leaders are actively identified and mentored.

“Much has been done before the pandemic to develop leadership pipelines for both racial and gender transformation, and those efforts should not now be discarded in the rush to return to old ways of working,” Naidoo concluded.