In early September, I was a guest on BBC Radio London’s Drivetime show. Presenter Eddie Nestor put a scenario to me, which I am sure is being played out up and down the country, where members of a team who couldn’t work from home resented someone that could. They put pressure on their manager to insist that the “absent” colleague be summoned back to the office because she was stopping them working effectively. 

Sound familiar? 

I’ve heard this situation described not only in recent months but over the years, when home working was much less common. At its heart is a fundamental feeling that the situation is unfair. One person gets to do something that others can’t. Is this because they aren’t trusted, or that the favoured person is getting away with something that others aren’t able to pull off? 

Deciding who can work from home 

Some years ago, I designed a process for a client facing this conundrum. There was a growing feeling in the business that decisions about who could (and who could not) work from home were being made purely at managers’ discretion, and there was concern that the decisions weren’t made in a fair, consistent or defensible way. 

Clearly at the point of lockdown, the decision was taken by Governments that those that could work from home should do so – effectively making huge numbers of people home workers overnight – with little opportunity for preparation or change management support. But now that things are opening up, and organisations are being encouraged to steer people back to the office, there will be increasing numbers of decisions taken about who can continue to work away and who will be required to return – or else! 

We need a process 

The process I designed for my client included a few simple steps: 

  1. Manager and job holders would independently: 
  2. Assess the suitability of the role to be carried out away from the office  
  3. Assess the suitability of each job holder to work away from the office 
  4. The parties would then discuss their respective views of how things could work and how the expectations of each could be met 
  5. team discussion would be held to establish how everyone’s respective needs could be managed, i.e. “how can we make this work for us?”  
  6. Agreements would be finalised with each individual and with the team, documenting the expectations, boundaries, timescales, next steps etc.  

The idea of this process is to provide some clear steps and facilitate transparency and honesty between parties. If the manager feels there are good reasons why working away from the office isn’t suitable for someone, they should be able to explain those reasons, and discuss ways in which progress could be made against clear targets and expectations. 

If decisions are felt to be arbitrary, then a sense of injustice will persist – and “procedural justice” is known to be important within teams and between managers and colleagues. If there is a performance issue, then it is far better to address it, rather than trying to avoid the problem by requiring the person to come to the office where they can be “managed”. The chances are that the performance management issue will also be present in the office, so there really is no way to avoid it! 

Building trust 

Having a clearly articulated process is vital not only in terms of keeping managers honest and open, but it also builds trust. We also need to talk in specifics – exactly what is the issue? How can it be addressed constructively? Acknowledging that different people need different working environments to be fully effective is an important understanding – and as ever there is a balance to be struck between personal preferences and the needs of colleagues. Fully responding to one person’s needs at the expense of others’ is not a sustainable approach – it will breed discontent, dissatisfaction and reduced effort. 

Adult / adult conversations 

One of the final questions I was asked during the interview was whether I felt that we are in an adult enough place to have these types of conversations. It was a very valid question, but sad that in the 21st century it still has to be asked. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has surely shown that when you trust people and empower them, they will generally repay you fully. If they are treated like children, they will in all likelihood respond in kind. 

Regardless of where people work, if they aren’t trusted, aren’t competent (with no signs of improvement) or they aren’t fulfilling their role, then it begs the question – why are they still here? This is not about place, it’s about performance – but perhaps it’s easier to overlook poor performance when people are in the office? If so, then the key is to develop and coach managers in tackling poor performance, applying clear criteria for flexible working opportunities, and signalling fairness of treatment across their teams.