What is the impact of proximity bias in a hybrid work environment for disabled employees?

The ‘working world’ post COVID-19 pandemic does not quite look the same as it did two years ago and although the rigour and pressures of working life have returned in full force for many, the impact of the pandemic looks like it will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in the form of our working practices.

In the past, going to work meant literally stepping out the door every morning and returning in the evening after a full day of work. However, the reality of today has meant that for many people their daily commute has become the short trip from our beds to a home office or even the kitchen table.

But what does this actually mean for business? Will companies be able to retain the productivity and profitability that they benefitted from pre-covid? Or will the effects of a dispersed work force be seen in the all-important profit margins?

The answer is, of course, that it all comes down to the staff that you employ and the provisions that you put in place to support them, whether they are working remotely or in a centralised office.

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias, is the idea that those in close physical proximity to leadership will be perceived as better workers. Recent studies have shown that many young employees, in companies that are taking advantage of a hybrid working environment, are concerned that working remotely will mean they miss out on progression opportunities and are therefore more likely to choose, where possible, to work in a physical office.

How does this affect disabled employees?

The problem of proximity biased is an easily fixed problem for most employees, they simply work from the office. However, there are those people whose mental/physical needs require them to work from home. 70% of disabled workers said it would negatively impact their physical or mental health if their employer did not allow them to work remotely; research by The Work Foundation found. However, 70% of those with multiple impairments or conditions said they felt opportunities to stretch and grow at work would go to those in the office instead.

All employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for their staff to facilitate them being able to perform the job to the best of their ability. However, the danger comes when those employees for whom it is necessary to work remotely feel passed over for promotions and career opportunities. In allowing them to work from home you have made provisions for their individual needs but in doing so, they may feel isolated and undervalued by the company.

In many cases employees have not declared their disabilities or adjustment requests are not being submitted as people feel that they will be put at a disadvantage. The result, of course, is that the morale and often the productivity of these employees is greatly affected and therefore the overall performance of the company is impacted.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum (BDF), said “Employers need to make sure that the learning and development opportunities they offer are accessible and inclusive to all.”