Managing Justice Perceptions When Flex Work Causes Interpersonal Conflict
By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.
Whether it is full time or part of the time, more people are working from home than ever. Although it is becoming clear that many individuals enjoy working virtually, tensions can build between different groups of employees who work onsite as residents, those who work flexibly between the office and home, and those who work entirely from home.
There are two sides to the story — and the grass might be greener on either side for both. The first is from resident workers; they might view the teleworkers or remote workers as having a privilege. It is possible that resident workers can feel resentment towards the workers who are allowed to telecommute because they have more flexibility. They might also feel there are unfair workload implications. For instance, in some offices, more impromptu tasks might come up and be assigned to someone who is onsite because to the manager they are more “in sight, in mind”. Conversely, the second perspective is from the flex workers or remote workers. They might see the resident workers as having advantages. Because they feel more “out of sight, out of mind” they could feel the resident workers get better opportunities, more face time with the leadership, and be more likely to get promotions as a result. They might also feel less connected to the company and isolated. It is possible they can feel outcasted simply because many individuals do not express the same warmth and kindness through emails as they do in a live meeting, so unless they are connected through video chats frequently, they could perceive colder interpersonal treatment.
When any individual or group of individuals feel they are being treated differently or have different opportunities than others in the company, this has the potential to stir up conflict and lead to decreases in performance and motivation.
What can we do about it?
Let’s examine this from a justice perspective. Researchers mainly discuss workplace justice using three different types (1):
• Distributive Justice: How fair are the outcomes?
• Procedural Justice: How fair are the processes that led to the outcomes?
• Interactional Justice: How fairly am I treated?
There are workplaces blended with resident workers who do not work virtually, flex workers who telecommute between the office and their homes, and remote workers who work from home all the time. It is likely these groups will be comparing themselves to one another, thus there is potential for people to feel injustice related to their situation if circumstances are not equal. In order to avoid employees growing feelings of injustice (which can be very detrimental to the bottom line) steps should be taken to consider what is being done to strengthen each type:
• This is the perceived fairness associated with the outcomes. Flex workers might feel the company does not provide them with equal resources to do their job compared to non-telecommuters. They might also feel they are missing out on rewards, recognition, promotions, social connections, or knowledge sharing.
• It is important to rectify any differences in rewards or outcomes between resident workers and telecommuters. Performance standards should be as similar as possible between the groups, expectations and evaluations should be the same (or have extremely reasonable, agreed upon differences), and promotions should occur at the same frequency. If there are jobs with the same descriptions and duties but one is remote, it is likely they should be paid the same (unless there is a compelling reason why this is not the case, such as the remote employee saving the company a large portion of money). If there are differences here, procedural justice becomes extremely important to help employees understand why (see next type of justice).
• This is the perceived fairness associated with the processes. Flex workers might feel they do not have voice or a presence in the company as much as whet workers. Non-telecommuters might feel they should have been selected to have remote work options.
• Leadership should take care to ensure communication regarding all decisions made to determine who will telework vs. who will be a resident worker are transparent, fair, and clear. It works even better when employees are involved and have voice in these processes when people are selected to be flex workers. They will want to know if it was systematic, lacked bias, ethical, and fair. Similar decisions related to group differences will require procedural transparency and fairness as well, such as pay. If flex workers, remote workers, and resident workers do not make the same amount of money for similar work, this must be explained in detail. Do you pay someone who works remotely in Kansas the same as someone working at headquarters onsite in New York City doing the same job? Explain the methodology behind it.
• This is how people feel they are treated. Non-telecommuters might resent virtual workers because they have to work extra hard to keep them in the loop, or telecommuters might feel they do not get as much respect or attention.
• People are very sensitive to the interpersonal treatment they receive, and this should be a consideration when operating within a flex work model. All employees want to feel the same level of respect. If a manger has more face-to-face meetings with the resident employees, they might consider adding video meetings to the agenda with the teleworkers to ensure they are also getting this face time. Decisions influenced by nepotism must also be avoided. The goal is for no group to feel out of the loop, disconnected, discriminated, disrespected, or forgotten.
Why are justice perceptions so important?
There are a host of reasons as to why justice perceptions should be of concern to companies. They influence the employee experience, the brand, the reputation of the company, and the customer experience. Justice perceptions are also related to important organizational outcomes like job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job performance, citizenship behavior, trust, turnover intentions, health and stress (2,3).
At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to avoid the disconnect between the various types of Flex Workers, help your business plan, and implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.
(1) Greenberg, J., & Colquitt, J. A. (2013). Handbook of organizational justice. Psychology Press.
(2) Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 86(2), 278-321.
(3) Judge, T. A., & Colquitt, J. A. (2004). Organizational justice and stress: the mediating role of work-family conflict. Journal of applied psychology, 89(3), 395.