Working From Home and the Psychological Contract

5 min read
Yan Krukau/Pexels

Source: Yan Krukau/Pexels

Consider this: It is two weeks before Christmas, and you receive an email from your CEO stipulating that all staff will be required to return to the office at least four days per week in the new year. Although you and your colleagues have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home since the start of the pandemic, it is now mandatory for you to return to work in-person. Would you happily swap your flexible working arrangements for the supposed benefits of all staff being present in the office together?

Instead of compliance with return-to-work mandates, we may instead expect to see a mass exodus of staff who would rather look for a new job that offers greater flexibility than be forced to return to commuting and working in a set place at fixed times. This mass exodus is a career phenomenon that has been informally dubbed “flexidus.” In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, 2023 has seen video conferencing giant Zoom, as well as the other names in tech, including Google, Meta, X, and Amazon, all announce staff must return to the office for at least two to three days per week. The companies that provide the platforms for virtual productivity are leading the charge for return to the office, and the irony is not lost on employees or the public.

The majority of people who worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic want to continue to do so; results from a recent report indicate four out of five flexible workers surveyed want to continue working from home at least some of the time. Many employers, on the other hand, have demanded that people return to the office or workplace, as illustrated by Zoom and many others. Poor relationships between employers and employees have likely developed for those who experience this disconnect between preferences, needs, and expectations, as both parties begin to feel exploited and taken advantage of. Is this a sign that the psychological contract is broken?

The psychological contract

A psychological contract is often an unspoken agreement based on a set of beliefs about a reciprocal relationship, encompassing both obligations and benefits, between two parties. In a workplace context, the psychological contract is between an employee and employer about what a job constitutes, what is expected from each party, what one is willing to give, and what benefits one can expect to receive. The psychological contract is subjective, and each employee may have a slightly different view about what they expect and what is expected of them, which can easily lead to perceived breaches, resulting in an erosion of trust and perceptions of fairness violations.

For example, if an employee was passed over for promotion due to their lack of learning in a certain area, they might then form the impression that attaining additional training in that area would lead to a promotion. If, after completing that training, they were again denied a promotion, the employee may feel that their employer failed to fulfill what they perceived to be the bargain and begin to withdraw their trust and commitment to the organisation. The employee would have felt that a promise had been broken and that the employer was not behaving fairly.

The benefits of flexible work

Employees who had demonstrated their capacity to work remotely and deliver when lockdowns and travel restrictions were mandated (especially in countries like Australia or Argentina with extended lockdowns) reported the following benefits of flexible working: better work-life balance, less time commuting, and more physical activity, all of which likely feed into employees’ preference for continued working from home arrangements. Employers, on the other hand, worried about such things as the dissipation of their old work culture, drops in innovation due to the lack of spontaneous meetings and discussions between employees who interact in a workspace, and reduced bonding between team members. Employers wanted employees to be present to begin contributing to the culture again.

Google’s Head of People, Fiona Cicconi, wrote in a memo, “We’ve heard from Googlers that those who spend at least three days a week in the office feel more connected to other Googlers, and that this effect is magnified when teammates work from the same location.” Similar comments about building trust and installing connections could be heard in the words of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “[O]ur hypothesis is that it is still easier to build trust in-person and that those relationships help us work more effectively.”

The “issues” of flexible work

In mid-2023, Elon Musk publicly voiced his disdain for flexible work, referring to working from home as both a “productivity issue” and a “moral issue.” Musk used a procedural justice argument, though a flawed one, to make the case that if everyone cannot work from home, then no one should. As evidenced by the vitriol present in Musk’s comments, a crack has been forming in the employee-employer relationship, and previous ‘understandings’ between the two around the ways we work are unravelling. This was likely exacerbated in cases of a sudden and forced return to the workplace once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

As people began returning and recovering from the exogenous shock of the pandemic, we saw the rise of new workplace trends, such as quiet quitting. For many, work began to feel less important, and people were unwilling to give as much as they previously had, preferring instead to focus more time on family, friends, and self-care. If trends like quiet quitting are symptoms of disillusions of both employees and employers, something needs to be done to restore trust, commitment from employees, and protection to employees. Making the psychological contract explicit, rather than an unspoken agreement about expectations, could be a step to right previous wrongs and restore balance between parties.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours