The simmering tension between remote and in-office workers – BBC

In February, Mark’s employer, an energy firm based in Ohio, US, told him he had to return to the office. The software engineer’s bosses had praised his output while working from home, and he never missed a deadline. Yet, in a company with more than 1,000 employees, it was only Mark’s department that initially received instructions to go back three days a week.

“Our team is small and all of us are on the same page: we don’t need to be there,” explains Mark, whose surname is being held for job-security concerns. “For my day-to-day responsibilities, there are no benefits gained by being in the office – I can accomplish all my tasks from home.”

For Mark, the on-the-ground reality is that only his five-person team, and a smattering of others, are actually back in the workplace. “I can count on both hands the number of employees present most days. We’re at the bottom of the pyramid, and have been told flat out we need to be in the office.” 

Senior-level colleagues at the company, however, still get to work remotely. Some of them are doing so while they travel around the US. “They’re never in the office,” says Mark. “We’ve had company-wide meetings where these employees were videoing in from vacation spots. Someone must have pointed out the optics – they’ve had their cameras off in the last few meetings.”

For Mark and his team, this disparity between who gets to work from home and who has to return to the office has created friction: different employees are subject to different rules, and it feels unfair that the rationale has never been explained. “It’s never been addressed by management,” he says. “While we can submit return-to-office queries during virtual meetings, they’re never been answered directly.”

As pandemic restrictions end, more and more companies are calling employees back to the office – yet the rules are not universal for all workers. Some bosses are allowing exceptions for individuals or particular groups of workers – moves hard to explain in the return-to-office world. While mandating certain behaviours from most employees, they’re allowing others to retain special arrangements.

But with some employees across an organisation working with very different attendance rules, tensions are beginning to bubble to the surface, impacting workplace dynamics.

‘No clear policy’

It’s no surprise calling staff back to the office is throwing up challenges. When the pandemic hit, employees had to switch to remote work almost overnight. As lockdowns bit and workers faced huge upheaval to their daily lives, managers had to be flexible about when and where teams got their jobs done; in some cases, parents changed their hours and cramped city-dwellers decamped to rural locations.

Two years on, many workers have crafted bespoke working set-ups that keep them productive outside traditional, in-office working patterns. Some of these employees are now being granted accommodations by employers to continue doing so; this group might include people who moved away from their work location during the pandemic and now want to keep their job remotely. There are also new recruits, hired on remote contracts.

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