Return-to-office mandates will just keep getting harsher as bosses stick to ‘management by walking around’


In a world where managers evaluate productivity based on hours spent at the desk, remote and hybrid workers often face a biased assessment. This proximity bias, or the inclination to value office presence over actual performance, hinders the adoption of flexible work policies despite their proven benefits. Recent studies by Nick Bloom shed light on this issue, revealing the failure of managers to accurately evaluate the productivity of remote and hybrid workers. The lack of training for managers in overseeing remote and hybrid teams is identified as a significant obstacle to effective performance assessment.

In one study, Bloom collaborated with Stanford University to analyze the performance of call center employees in a remote work setting. The results showed a 13% increase in performance among remote workers over a nine-month period. This increase was attributed to fewer breaks and sick days, as well as a quieter working environment leading to more calls per minute. However, despite the objective improvement in productivity, managers underestimated the performance of remote workers and limited their promotion opportunities.

Another study focused on hybrid work arrangements and involved employees from two divisions of a large company. The hybrid group, with flexible work schedules, demonstrated a 4.4% increase in productivity measured by lines of code written. Additionally, the hybrid group reported higher retention rates, improved job satisfaction, and fewer sick days. However, managerial assessments and promotion rates remained unaffected, indicating a disconnect between actual productivity and recognition.

The issue lies in the proximity bias that persists within traditional office-centric models of assessment. Managers often equate physical presence with productivity and struggle to evaluate remote and hybrid workers accurately. This bias becomes a career impediment in a world where flexible work models are becoming more prevalent.

To address this issue, it is crucial for managers to receive training in effectively assessing the productivity of remote and hybrid workers. Relying on outdated methods, such as annual performance reviews, is no longer sufficient. Instead, managers should establish regular one-on-one meetings with their team members, incorporating performance assessment elements into these discussions. Setting SMART goals and providing real-time feedback and support can help align expectations, evaluate performance, and foster a strong manager-employee rapport.

This micro-evaluation approach offers employees a clear reflection of their performance, promotes psychological safety, and guards against burnout. It enables managers to make informed decisions regarding project allocations, promotions, and pay raises. Moreover, it helps identify and address performance issues early on, benefiting both individual employees and the overall success of the team and organization.

Until managers receive the necessary training and support, they will continue to undervalue the performance of remote and hybrid workers. Overcoming proximity bias is essential for organizations to embrace flexible work policies and fully harness the potential of their workforce.  

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