“Should I stay or should I go now?” Work from home or return to the office?
Back in the early 1980s when The Clash’s epic punk rock anthem hit the charts (written by Headon et al., 1981), work was very different experience to how it is now. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1981 men filled two million more UK jobs than women (ONS 2021), and the world wide web wasn’t to arrive until 1989 (Craig, 2008). Whilst working from home is not new phenomenon, the advent of the internet saw its steady growth from 2.918 million (1989) to 4.607 million (2019), with numbers spiking in 2021 to 5.6 million (ONS 2021; Clark, 2021).
This 2021 spike can be largely attributed to the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic (ONS, 2021). When lockdown legislation hit the UK workplace on 26th March 2020 (Coronavirus Act, 2020) the workforce was required to ‘work-from-home where possible’ (ibid). Work as we knew it changed overnight, and ‘the new normal’ was with us (Eyre, 2020). We have very recently entered a new phase of pandemic working, largely due to uptake of the vaccination programme, and employers are exploring their return-to-office and ‘dynamic working’ strategies (CIPD, 2021a).
Come on and let me know
As with any crisis, the events and challenges of the last 18 months have provided those of us who research work within academia new and important problems to explore. A keen interest of mine is that of the psychological contract (PC). It is a concept that is deliberately distinct from a formal employment contract and helps us understand why some employees might become demotivated and ultimately withdraw from their work, when a ‘breach’ of their PC occurs. PCs also provide a useful lens for exploring why employees may be struggling to return to the office post-coronavirus, and why opinions are so polarised.
Originally coined by Rousseau (1989) the PC refers to the unwritten set of expectations of the employment relationship. The CIPD (2021b:1) states that “people’s perceptions of employers’ obligations are often informal and imprecise. They may be inferred from actions … or from what has happened in the past.” An example of such an unwritten expectation is “if I work hard and stay late, then it will improve my chances of promotion because this is what my colleague did”. A PC is not only subjective and individual, but it drifts over time (Rousseau 1989, 1995). A crucial aspect is that this drift is usually slowly evolving (ibid).
If I go there will be trouble … And if I stay there will be double
However, these aren’t usual times. Employee expectations of what work is, where it is and what constitutes a motivating and engaging work environment, has changed dramatically over the last 18 months. I argue that, in some cases, this has led to substantially changed PCs - some based on positive experiences of working-from-home and some negative. Revisiting the 1980s workplace set out at the start of this article; imagine transporting a 1980s employee into the 2021 workplace. The 1980s worker would be required to adapt immediately from what is termed as the ‘old psychological contract’ (Sparrow, 1996) to the ‘new’ one. Moving from; an analogue into a digital office, a ‘job for life’ to a transient career, from being rewarded based on level, position and status to that of reward based on contribution, to list a few (see Maguire, 2002). The 1980s worker may experience a breach that could lead to negative ‘self-repair’ responses such as retreat, destruction and exit (Robinson and Morrison, 1993) due to pre-held expectations not being met.
This hypothetical scenario, although more extreme, is not too dissimilar from the current experience being faced by employees with their pending return-to-office. Many employees thrown into working-from-home have substantially altered PCs. Research has cited positive experiences such as; increased flexibility to choose when employees put in their hours, greater autonomy, and it being easier to balance work with family responsibilities (Parker et al., 2020). However, the same research highlights negative experiences, such as; feeling less connected to co-workers, and older workers feeling challenged getting work done uninterrupted (ibid).
If you don't want me, set me free
What is clear from this is that individuals have experienced working-from-home differently. Subsequently, the return-to-office may concern those who have experienced change positively, compromising their revised PCs. This can have sudden and powerful consequences for these employees and their organisations. It can lead to negatively affecting job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and increased turnover intentions (CIPD, 2021b)
It is little surprise then that social media feeds have been filled with articles touting rhetoric such as “The Great Resignation” (Morgan, 2021) and “The Mass Exodus” (Bodell, 2021). But what can managers, HR and organisations do to address this? I propose an evidenced-based 5R framework to help prepare employers plan and manage the challenges associated with substantially changed PCs and the return-to-office dilemma.
- Review: Understand the PC health of your workforce: Research tells us that not all employees have experienced working-from-home positively. Conduct a ‘working-from-home experience survey’ to understand experiences across various employee demographics.
- Recognise: Identify those groups of employees who have had highly positive experiences, who may be at a higher risk PC breach with return-to-office. Prioritise efforts on these groups/ individuals.
- Reconnect: Engage in dialogue with these groups/ individuals for re-establishing healthy PCs (CIPD, 2021b). Managers have been identified as critical to building trusted relationships (ibid) and should have the skills required to discuss issues with their staff and enable employees to feel able to share their perspectives freely (Gottschalk, 2013).
- Repair: Mend fractured PC contracts through a process of active discussion and negotiation. Managers and employees need to be open to compromise for reaching a realistic agreement on dynamic working, or return-to-office.
- Revisit: PCs are fluid. PC health ought to be checked periodically following any significant repairs to ensure that mutual expectations are understood and to manage any subsequent drift.
The PC is based on employees’ sense of fairness and trust, and their belief that the employer is honouring their perceived 'deal' between them (CIPD, 2021b). PCs are individual and dynamic. During periods of significant change there is an increased risk of PC breach that could, if unmanaged and unsupported, lead to resignation. It is the manager’s responsibility for maintaining healthy PCs through forging trusted relationships, open communication and negotiation with their employees (ibid). The 5R model draws on existing academic theory to provide a useful framework for identifying when psychological contracts clash, and a way to navigate through to achieving an aligned way of working that meets the needs of both employer and employee.
About the Author
Dr Clair Doloriert is a senior lecturer at Bangor Business School and a Fellow of the CMI, Academic Associate of the CIPD and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her passion is the teaching and researching of Organisational Behaviour (OB) and Human Resource Management (HRM). She teaches and researches how the individuals, teams and strategic aspects of the organisation behave and perform (or not) in the workplace. Whilst OB seeks to understand the how and why individuals and groups behave as they do, HRM focusses on how then to best manage and lead these individuals and groups focussing on what is now commonly referred to as the ‘employee lifecycle’. Much of current HRM best-practice builds on the evidence-based theory of OB.
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