For many organizations still trying to adapt to the revolution of remote work in the past year, class warfare may be looming on the horizon.
A workforce that is divided into two “classes” after the pandemic subsides — those who work at home and those who return to the office full time — risks fomenting cultural divisions among employees, according to management experts and business executives.
To prevent such fissures, organizations need to start preparing now in order to mitigate any potential work-culture disasters, they say.
Even after the pandemic subsides, a two-class system of workers can arise should one class of worker begin resenting the advantages of the other, according to Rich Barton, the chief executive officer of Zillow, an online real-estate marketplace platform.
Such clashes can occur when workers aren’t physically in the same place, Barton said on a company earnings call on February 10, according to Business Insider. He expressed the need to guarantee a “level playing field” for all team members, whether they work at home or in the office.
“There cannot be a two-class system—those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class,” he said.
‘Silence from the remote workers’
An increasing number of organizations have announced that employees will continue to be able to work from home, some on a permanent basis, even after the health crisis ends.
Salesforce, Google, Facebook and Shopify all have said employees can work from home until at least July 2021. Twitter, Shopify and Spotify have said it could be forever. Citigroup has told its employees that about half of them will continue to work from home well into 2022.
Still, many businesses plan for at least some employees to return full-time to the office, and having a physically divided workforce may spur a harmful fissure among employees, says Alla Weinberg, a workplace relationship specialist and the author of “Culture of Safety: Building an Environment for People to Think, Collaborate and Innovate.”
Though other things can trigger a two-class system, she says the most common occurs when in-office workers gather on a call with workers at home — even a video conference.
“There are many nonverbal cues, side conversations and after-meeting comments that get missed by remote workers because their experience is mediated by technology,” Weinberg said. “It’s especially hard for remote people to know when to interject as they can’t see everyone in the room properly. So the biggest impact will be less engagement and silence from the remote workers.”
Budding resentment and conflict
It’s also common for at-home staffers to be assigned to something by the in-office crew because they are not there to object to it, she added
“This can lead to resentment and conflict between office and remote workers,” Weinberg said.
A two-class system doesn’t just occur when remote workers feel left out, says Tom Winter, co-founder of DevSkiller, an IT skills-assessment screener and online interview platform. In-house employees also may feel resentful about the flexibility that remote folks have. Working from home could be viewed as a privilege and foster bitterness, he added.
“In some cases, there may no issue at all, but there is no way to tell until you’ve fully tested a hybrid remote/in-house business model for a while,” Winter said.
Jeremy Bernard, the chief executive officer for North America of Essensys, a technology provider for flexible workspaces, agrees that a two-class system isn’t inevitable.
“Hybrid teams can be highly effective as long as the technology is provided for seamless, simple and secure collaboration,” he said. “A two-class system can be avoided if multiple options are available for everyone and teams communicate well.”
Building trust and fostering communication
Winter of DevSkiller urges organizations to encourage input and communication. He says seeking ideas and feedback gives employees a voice and makes management aware of any issues.
Adam Garcia, owner of financial news site The Stock Dork, says his company conducted a monthly survey when his employees went mostly remote at the start of the pandemic. It helped them understand issues workers were facing, regardless of where they worked.
Continuing efforts to build interpersonal and business trust among employees during the pandemic boosted communication, performance and culture, according to Garcia.
“The important point here [is], we need regular and consistent communication with the remote employees to overcome any disparities,” he said.
Weinberg, the workplace relationship specialist, recommends that businesses create opportunities for staff to create new working agreements and compromises. For example, everyone could attend meetings virtually, even if workers are in the office.
Meeting agendas and etiquette
When it comes to meetings, organizations should audit their structure in order to assess the impact of remote and in-person employee culture, she said.
Business leaders need to look at their meeting agendas, the balance of speakers, etiquette and roles, Weinberg added.
At the same time, they should watch how many side conversations are happening in person and via messaging platforms to learn more about the dynamics of the culture.
“If the real conversation is happening on the side while everyone is remote, then there will be a big chasm between office and remote workers in the future,” Weinberg said. She also recommends written communication when appropriate and deploys methods to put it in place.
Relying more heavily on written communication levels the playing field between office and remote workers as it requires people to be more precise and rigorous. It also creates a document trail that can be followed by everyone, while reducing meetings, conferences, calls and misunderstandings, Weinberg said.
Smooth operations benefit job security
John Sullivan, Ph.D., a retired professor of management at San Francisco State University, says educating managers and employees about potential cultural divides and how they can negatively affect the company — and therefore their own job security — is key.
“Make the business case for supporting remote work teams,” Sullivan said, adding that organizations should make sure that every manager and employee knows that smooth operations between remote and in-person workers benefit both their personal economic and job security.
Companies also should convey that unequal treatment will be monitored statistically (so they should have metrics in place), and identified with anonymous surveys and through exit interviews, he added.
DevSkiller’s Winter says businesses should focus more on culture. For example, make time for face-to-face interaction even if some of your team is remote or partially remote.
“As long as there is some degree of face-to-face interaction between the ‘in-house crew’ and the ‘remote cult’ once in a while, it can positively influence the entire company culture,” he said.
Watercooler breaks and free food
Craig Kaplan, the chief customer officer at remote environment creator Virbela, believes leaders need to encourage remote social practices that mimic real-world behaviors.
“It can be as simple as setting up casual check-ins or even calendaring watercooler breaks for your team or company,” he said, adding that is important to use technology to replicate the office experience for all employees, regardless of where they’re based.
Winter also emphasizes that adding perks such as free food or shortened work hours can help motivate remote workers to occasionally visit the office.
“It would encourage even the remote workers to drop by the office on occasion, even if it’s just for social and team-building purposes,” he said.