Going on three years into a global pandemic that has already killed more than 5.25 million people, office-related biases are—through some lenses—the least of our concerns.
That said, such biases can impact lifelong professional trajectories, so while lives may not be at stake, life-paths certainly are, and the success or failure of businesses (and scaling up, entire industries) may pivot on such concerns, as well.
Consider, for instance, a concept called "proximity bias," which refers to the slow, barely noticeable accumulation of benefits to people who work from offices—alongside their peers, managers, and/or employers—at the expense of people who work from home (or someplace else that is not the office) because of the pandemic or otherwise.
This space is primarily filled by anecdata at the moment, much of it gathered by research groups scrounging for meaningful case-studies they can present when advising their corporate clients on how to handle remote- and hybrid-work rules so they're as equitable, healthful, and sustainable as possible.
But there have been a few more formal and standardized studies which indicate, for instance, that "face time" influences perception of a person's work. And face time in this context refers to seeing someone around the office but also in extracurricular settings, like getting drinks after work or at a nearby restaurant at lunch.
Importantly, this influence extends to both fellow employees and folks higher up the corporate food chain, which means these spontaneous trait inferences can shape our perceived credibility, reliability, capability, and so on, but also nudge us onto different professional paths because of how we're perceived within our workplace.
Someone who's not at the office, then, because of pandemic-related concerns, because they've just had a kid, or because of geographic limitations is possibly operating at a substantial disadvantage compared to their colleagues who are able to show up in person—even if their work and their personalities are otherwise similar.
Again, there's not a whole lot of good data on this right now, but what is available suggests that even when people who work remotely are doing measurably better work, those working from the office will take the lion's share of promotions and other benefits.
This is an issue many corporations are struggling with right now, as the most equitable move—by some estimations, at least—is to go fully remote, rather than hybrid (some people working at the office, some people working at home, and some people doing a little of both) in order to avoid the amplification of such biases.
There's also some evidence that a feeling of being left out of company culture—if you're one of relatively few remote workers while everyone else is working from a physical office—can negatively impact both work performance and psychological well-being in those not able to tangibly participate in that culture.
Despite the seeming benefits of going fully remote, however, there's also evidence that managers and other people in leadership positions prefer, by a wide margin, to have all employees (or as many of them as possible) back in a physical office, full-time.
More specifically, executives are nearly three times as likely to want everyone back at the office compared to non-management employees, and 76% of employees want flexibility in where they work (93% want flexibility in when they work).
This is only supposition, but one current, common explanation for why this might be the case is that offices are perceptually quite different for people at the top of the company power structure. So while some managers might feel they're unable to demonstrate their worth as effectively from a distance, others maybe just like the feeling of being respected and in charge, and might not get the same psychological benefits from that power-imbalance when those over whom they have power are not physically adjacent.
Even though a recent survey (which is roughly in line with other, similar surveys on the matter) shows about 40% of workers (and 49% of Millennial and Get Z workers) would rather quit than return to the office full-time, then, there's still a chance such a reversion may be mandated as soon as it's regulatorily feasible, because those making these decisions have different preferences than those to whom the decisions apply.
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