Some businesses have some staff forced to work from home while others are forced to stay at work – both might feel unfairly treated. Organisational Development Consultant WENDY HALL discusses some of the underlying issues around this fairness divide.
This week has brought up a recurring theme: “Why am I working and taking all the risk when they are ‘swanning’ around having ‘e-drinks’ and ‘tea parties’ at home?”
This is shouting to anyone who observes human behaviour as a fairness issue. If I go back to the dates of pre-COVID it is the same message just instead of “at home” it was “in the corporate office”. I have observed this divide in construction, infrastructure, utilities, mining, food production and processing and many more. It has been a cultural thorn since the creation of faceless relationships and in organisations that number hundreds of team members.
So why does this exist? If we work off the premise that every role is needed and the degree of complexity and interdependence means that each role contributes to the organisation’s outputs, why may we feel, in an operation role, that our work is underappreciated and we work harder than support roles? Why may we feel, in a support role, that operations does not see the hard work we do? Is the divide caused by a sense of fairness? Or just a sense that I am not appreciated in my own role and the faceless support team are my focused outlet? Either way, it is all about perspective-taking that makes it real to me.
Unless I choose to look outside of my ‘story’ and really see people, who do not do the same work as me, then I am fixed in my view that I am right and confirmation bias certainly goes a long way to support my beliefs. I may well feel that I am the only one feeling threat and, in this current world of COVID, am not acknowledged or appreciated for the risk I am taking. And yet we know that it is the same threat that we all feel. It’s just that the impact has been hugely different.
So if I use the example that is top of mind, that shouts “I feel I am being treated unfairly”; I am hearing that some team members in operational roles feel that they are carrying the risk and perceive this to be unfair while non-operational roles are certainly less at risk of COVID. Some have called for non-operational roles to return to the offices.
But if we apply a little empathy and see it from the other side – could it look like this? Operational team members may feel scared and anxious and the reality is they are carrying greater risk. We may stand in judgement if we feel envious that they are still with their work family and have not lost their sense of belonging. They are still following a similar and often same routine so have certainty in their world. We also know the support teams are carrying less risk. We also need to appreciate while they carry less risk they have been displaced from their work family, they are dealing with a myriad of complexities that working from home brings, feeling isolated, disconnected, and lost. Same threat different impact. Neither is wrong. It is what we feel.
So, what does this mean? Well it means that unless leaders in organisations, firstly truly understand and focus attention on this divide, expressly addressing the root causes of this belief, positively addressing the issues, individually and collectively, then when we move into a Post COVID world our divide will be even bigger than it was before.
We will be just as disconnected as before but now with a heavy dose of unfairness and possible social pain to increase the chasm that exists. This is crippling for an organisation where operations and support do not work in collaboration, affecting the micro day-to-day choices and movements that each member of the organisation makes.
So, what can we do to address this age old problem of “value” and “contribution”? Well, this is leader work. It is a leader’s work to address the sense of fairness that exists through our perspective, to listen and challenge the view, to really acknowledge and appreciate the work being done by team members, to create opportunities and processes that bring the sides together. We need to create connection where there is currently a “faceless” relationship. We need to build strong bonds which create great insight into other roles, both sides need to feel the value of their own role and other connected roles.
Team members need to be encouraged to ask “what can I do to make your role easier? How may I support you?”
Let’s remove the faceless relationships and make them real people. This will avoid the economic and social pain that will come if we don’t.