Remote work program reduction can come with a number of challenges. According to the latest news reports, many employees are balking at the idea. The Annual Work Trend Index Report by Microsoft states that 50% of employers were looking to bring back employees to the office full time. Whereas 53% of employees are more likely to prioritize health and wellbeing over work. If companies choose to reduce remote work programs, what challenges are they likely to face?
Breaking of a Contract
A complex relationship exists between an employee and their hiring organization. In Academia a common term used to describe this relationship is psychological contract. A psychological contract is “an individuals’ beliefs about the terms and conditions of reciprocal exchange agreement between individuals and the organization” (Liu et al., 2020).
An example of this is when an individual joins a company as a remote employee. They have a perception that the remote work option will continue. When that program ends suddenly, there are lots of questions. Why did the change occur? Why was the change necessary? What is the impact of this change on my life and lifestyle? Answers to these questions will determine how the change is perceived. It may be tolerable, beneficial, or a deal breaker. Likewise, if an employee was office-based prior to the remote work program and is now returning to the office, it can be seen as returning to the original contract and be welcomed.
Offsetting changes to the psychological contract, such as with new in-office benefits or transition periods, can reduce many negative perceptions.
Reduction in Productivity
Remote workers are often more productive than their in-office counterparts. A number of reasons often cited for this increase in productivity: lack of commute, ability to create an optimized workspace, and lack of distractions. Moving back to the office is likely to result in a reduction in productivity in part due to changing environments. The other due to a perceived break in the psychological contract.
For example, remote work policies enacted during the pandemic may have been for the benefit of the business. Basically, a business continuity plan. If the remote work policy was enacted prior to the pandemic, it is likely perceived to be an employee benefit. A return to the office after a business continuity plan is less likely to encounter resistance. The response to returning to the office “just because” however, is likely to generate ill-will. This feeling can result in significant reduction in organizational commitment. When there is lower organizational commitment, organizations may experience non-productive behaviors and reduced productivity among employees.
Timing of the Reduction
Unfortunately, timing of back to the office (and back to school) is not all happening at the same time. This might create issues for employees who have to balance family responsibilities with shifting work experiences. For example, a remote work policy enacted during the pandemic to help employees achieve work-life balance with new responsibilities. In this case, a grace period or an opportunity for employees to individually apply for an extension can offset employee challenges. If a remote work program stops abruptly, employees may struggle to find a balance. This may contribute to lower productivity and organizational commitment.
To summarize, review the timing and the origin of the policy when reducing a remote work program to reduce the impact on productivity.
Which challenges are you most concerned about when initiating a remote work program reduction in your organization? If you are an employee being asked to come back to the office, what concerns do you have?