Leading Hybrid Teams: Overcoming Proximity Bias & Combatting Burnout

Be aware of proximity bias.

Proximity bias occurs when people who are physically present in the office benefit in unfair ways from bring close to leaders and colleagues. Like any unconscious bias, proximity bias is a natural instinct that can influence our thoughts and actions in subtle and not so subtle ways.

For many years, there’s been an expectation that employees need to be in the office, where we can see and hear them, to be productive. It also doesn’t just occur in hybrid work environments—when making decisions about who to trust, our brains have a natural tendency to value people that are closest to us.

What are you most likely to do when you need quick input–turn to a team member who is physically near you or use Slack / Teams to reach out to a team member who is working remotely? Do you tend to view people in the office as more productive and trustworthy than those working remotely?

You can start by combat proximity bias the same way you overcome other unconscious biases: be aware of it, reflect honestly on your own behaviours, and take action.


  • Establish ground rules. Consider ways of interacting that create inclusive experiences for all team members regardless of location differences. For example, run meetings virtually even if some people are in the office to create a more level playing field. When a key decision is being made, ensure remote workers are included in the discussions and everyone has an equal opportunity to weigh in.
  • Connect regularly with everyone. Whether it’s daily or weekly, be deliberate about checking in with all team members on a consistent basis.
  • Reflect on connections and assignments. Take a few minutes to regularly reflect on who you’ve connected with—formally or informally—and who has been given key projects over the past few days.
  • Encourage your team to notice proximity bias. Your team members are also subject to proximity bias. Do people in the office tend to rely more on team members who are present and (unintentionally) exclude remote employees? Share these tips with them and have open discussions about how to include all team members.

Use Empathy to Combat Stress and Burnout

The pandemic-induced changes to work and the continuing rapid pace of change have already pushed many people to their limits. It’s easy for leaders to think everyone has figured out working remotely and that returning to the office will make things easier for everyone. While there are many benefits to hybrid work, it requires us to continue to adapt and find new ways or working. Some employees may be ready for new challenges and others may be at their breaking point.

When it comes to hybrid work environments, research by Zoom shows the variety of ways people feel about returning to the office. Some can’t wait to get back and interact with colleagues. Others prefer to continue working remotely and may even be worried about the negative impacts of having to go back in the office (e.g., long, crowded commutes; juggling child care commitments, etc.).

As organizations call people back into the office, employees will experience new pressures and different stressors. Some many believe they need to be physically present to get the best assignments. Remote employees might be worried they will be left out if they continue to work away from the office. All employees might feel pressured to work even harder and contribute more – either because they aren’t in the office or because they are more visible to others in the office.

According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, a leader’s ability to demonstrate empathy has been shown to be the number one factor that reduces burnout.


  • Watch for signs of burnout. It’s impossible to notice what you aren’t looking for. Pay attention to changes in attitude or behaviour (e.g., no longer speaking up in meetings, missing deadlines, etc.) and notice team members who are acting out of character.
  • Ask and listen. Regularly ask team members how they are feeling—this is the easiest way to know how someone is doing. Show them you are listening by giving them your full, undivided attention. This will also help create a safe space for team members to openly share challenges.
  • Recognize different experiences and perspectives. We tend to assume others have the same ideas and feelings as we do—this is rarely true. Your employees may be having a very different experience. Even if you do not agree or feel the same way, respect their unique experience and perspective.
  • Take action. Show that you are willing to help. You don’t need to be an expert in mental health. Let them know you are there to support them. Ask them what they need. Consider how you can reprioritize demands or reallocate resources.

Leading a hybrid team isn’t easy. As a leader, you have the ability to create a healthy hybrid work environment for your team.

If you want to talk more about leading hybrid teams, please book a discovery call.