Reducing proximity bias in remote work can improve public health and wellbeing
COVID-19 prompted numerous companies to reconsider their approach to the future of work. Many leaders felt reluctant about maintaining hybrid and remote work options after vaccines became widely available. Yet the emergence of dangerous COVID variants such as Omicron has shown the folly of this mindset.
To mitigate the risks of new variants and other public health threats, as well as to satisfy the desires of a large majority of employees who express a strong desire in multiple surveys for a flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule, leaders are increasingly accepting that hybrid and remote options represent the future of work. No wonder that a February 2022 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond showed that more and more firms are offering hybrid and fully-remote work options. The firms expect to have more remote workers next year and more geographically-distributed workers.
Although hybrid and remote work mitigates public health risks, it poses another set of health concerns relevant to employee wellbeing, due to the threat of proximity bias. This term refers to the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality among 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. In fact, a January 2022 survey by the company Slack of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that proximity bias is the top concern – expressed by 41% of executives - about hybrid and remote work.
To address this problem requires using best practices based on cognitive science for creating a culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This solution is based on guidance that I developed for leaders at 17 pioneering organizations for a company culture fit for the future of work.
Protect from proximity bias via the "Excellence From Anywhere" strategy
So why haven’t firms addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences of time spent in the office.
Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose. You might have heard of black swans: low-probability, high-impact threats. Well, the opposite kind of threats are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blindspots. The scientific name for these blindspots is cognitive biases, which cause leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model.
The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.
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 evaluating employees based on task completion, allowing remote work whenever possible.
Addressing Resentments Due to Proximity Bias
The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about treatment of remote workers by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation.
By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business 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.
This technique appeals to the tribal aspect of our brains. We are evolutionarily adapted to living in small tribal groups of 50-150 people. Spending different amounts of time in the office splits apart the work tribe into different tribes. However, cultivating a shared focus on business outcomes helps mitigate such divisions and create a greater sense of unity, alleviating frustrations and resentments. Doing so helps improve employee emotional wellbeing and facilitates good collaboration.
Solving the facetime concerns of proximity bias
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 performance evaluation through one-on-one in-person or videoconference check-ins.
Supervisees agree with their supervisor on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report, under a page, to their boss of 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. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.
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.
At the one-on-one, the supervisor reinforces positive aspects of performance and coaches the supervisee 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 ensures that the employee’s work is integrated with efforts by the supervisor’s other employees, thereby ensuring more unity in achieving business outcomes. It also 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.
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 wellbeing, engagement, and retention.
You don’t have to be the CEO to implement these techniques. Lower-level leaders of small rank-and-file teams can implement these shifts within their own teams, adapting their culture and performance evaluations. And if you are a staff member rather than a leader, send this article to your supervisor and other employees at your company: start a conversation about the benefits of addressing proximity bias using such research-based best practices.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”