Remote workers used to be second-class citizens; they were less likely to get raises and promotions, and more likely to face discrimination and stigma due to the circumstances keeping them at home. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic upended this traditional office hierarchy—equalizing the workplace playing field by keeping most of us at home.
Now that offices are reopening, remote work is becoming a status symbol again—but this time for the employees with the greatest bargaining power. As a perk being offered only to the few, remote work has the potential to accelerate inequality in workplaces, cultivating resentment from those forced into the office while their colleagues get the luxury of working from afar.
Managers are likely starting to recognize that the psychology behind return-to-work is fraught with conflict. “Remote work status” marks an inter-office discord, giving rise to the most basic form of conflict that comes with separating people into groups. Research shows that even the most arbitrary of distinctions—randomly assigning people to group A and group B—lead to “us-versus-them” thinking. Within any group, distinctions quickly become infused with status differences, with some being seen as more worthy of respect than others. The “remote versus in-office” distinction is replete with difference, and this distinction is further compounded by physical separation.
With a little foresight, managers can calm the waves of conflict before they crest and crash. The simplest step leaders can take is to expand the remote work pie. That means making off-site work available to more workers and not just the select few. More broadly, companies should never offer one-off perks without considering the broader policy implications and how a perk may create a distinction that produces intergroup and status reactions.
In some cases, granting unequal privileges may be unavoidable. When that happens, it becomes critical for leaders to expand the status pie, a term I use to refer to increasing the total amount of respect within a group. In negotiations, we talk about win-win agreements as ones that expand the pie of resources. These occur when negotiators have different preferences; by giving concessions on my low-value issue (but your high-value issue) in exchange for more on my high-value issue, I get more of what I want while offering you more of what you want. The same logic occurs for status. Just as a basketball coach might explicitly praise the subtle yet unique contributions of each player, from setting picks to hustling for a loose ball, leaders can mention the important contributions and unique talents of each member on a team project. In the case of remote workers, leaders need to highlight the contributions of both in office and remote workers, emphasizing how both remote work and in-office work are equally essential for team success.
For some managers, expanding the status pie may mean sharing some of their own privileges they’ve earned with others. Managers, as leaders, are both role models and workplace architects, designing their workplace to naturally lead to certain reactions and interactions. That means that leaders need to carefully think through what their remote work policy will look like so that it doesn’t becomes an enduring fault-line. This may mean traveling into the office with their staff in a sign of solidarity, rather than opting for a cushier schedule for themselves, foregoing some of their remote time to be with their team.
Leaders can take other seemingly trivial steps, but ones that will go a long way to minimizing the remote vs. in-office divide. They can ask all employees, even those present in the same room, to join calls virtually. And once on those calls, having all employees use standardized backgrounds in virtual meetings can take away the conspicuous, jealousy-inducing status symbol of working from a more desirable location (e.g. a beach).
When the respect pie expands, everyone can have a slice. And when all parties feel respected that means more cohesion and a better work product.
If there’s any hope of the rise in remote work taking us forward, and not backwards, companies need to grow the status and remote work pies so they can generously offer more employees a slice—not just the lucky few. By praising different contributions across the remote work distinction, managers can make more people feel respected and less people feel resentment. No matter where work is completed, expanding the status pie is the winning move.