Three years ago, I did an experiment.
Back then, I worked with a team of eight. I wasn’t on the project full time, so I sat at my own desk some 25 meters away from the rest. Estimated travel time: 15 seconds.
Despite the short distance, I noticed that I was rarely asked about the project, except if I happened to cross someone in the hallway. I also saw that decisions were often taken before I knew they were up for discussion. Why was that?
The Experiment 🔬
Confronted with the mystery of human behaviour, I resolved to the only tool that a person with a scientific background can trust. I ran an experiment.
I moved from my usual desk and took a vacant spot at the two 4-desk islands where the rest of the team sat.
Armed with a piece of paper, I recorded only one thing. Each time I got a question about the project or was involved in a discussion, I would make a tick on the paper.
“Johan, how should we …?”. Tick. “Is there anybody that knows how to…”. Tick. “Can I ask you …?”. Tick. “And while I have you …?”. Tick. Tick. Tick.
I was overwhelmed. After 20 ticks, I stopped the ticking. In a few hours, I had been part of more discussions than I usually would in a week.
The next day I moved a bit to sit in a room just next door. I was separated from the rest of the team only by a glass wall, I wasn’t directly visible, but everybody knew where I was and could get to me in 5 seconds of walking.
How significant an impact could such a short distance have?
At the end of that day, I counted 4 ticks. I was stunned.
On the final day, I was back at my usual desk, 25 meters away from the group. That day, I made 1 tick. Things were back to normal.
In-person bias 👁🗨
The negative conclusions of my highly unscientific experiment were obvious.
My influence wasn’t determined by my skills but by my visibility. If I wanted impact, I needed to sit where the rest of the team could see me.
In academia, this effect is called proximity bias. It’s our tendency to favorise people that we can see.
I now call it in-person bias.
Out of sight, out of mind 🙈
With companies shifting to a hybrid model, where employees have the flexibility to choose between working from home or at the office, this experiment reveals a challenge.
The more you are in the office, the more impact you will have.
If you show up at the office, your manager will notice you more, your colleagues will ask you for more input, and your presence will carry more pondus than your written word.
If you stay at home, decisions will be taken without your knowledge, you will miss opportunities that are only spoken, and you cannot easily tap into the knowledge that’s buzzing at the office.
Managers need to face this challenge as the flexibility they have created suddenly isn’t as flexible. Sure, you can stay at home, but it will damage your career.
How do you eliminate in-person bias? 😇
You can’t. That’s the thing about biases, we have them, and being aware doesn’t get rid of them. But being aware is an essential first step.
You are now aware, but you might not be convinced. If so, I think you should try the experiment at your workplace.
I would love to hear your results.
The second step to counteracting biases is to take actions that mitigate them.
Hybrid teams need ways of working that weaken the effect of in-person bias. They need ways of collaborating that don’t rely on physical presence. They need a workplace they can join from anywhere.