Pre-Covid, the role I was in had some flexibility. For starters, when I first took on this new role, I was told I could work remotely as many days as I wanted to remote. This was due to adding 30 minutes more to my commute and the fact I had a team in Shanghai, India, and the US. I quickly realized the flexibility was more idealistic than realistic. While other people in the office rarely showed up, I found it hard to be more productive than with my team if I was fully remote. The business team I supported were in my old building and my team as stated were mostly remote with a few in my building.
Being in the office I was able to walk the floor, talk to the team informally and really get insight into things that were going on. I was also building rapport with people on other teams (that were willing to go into the office) and get understanding of how things ticked. One challenge was the team in Shanghai, which I changed the way they worked from them having calls when they got home to me having calls late at night during their morning. That whole reform could be another store. But burning the candle like that was not easy so I did take some time to work at home to get sleep.
Bring on the Pandemic and I no longer had a team in Shanghai but now my team is in NY, India and Montreal. Everyone was forced remote. There were a few stops and starts and at some point, coming to the office was ‘optional’ but encouraged. My thought always was it should really be a team-by-team thing, as well as the need for the time in the office to be productive. Going into the office and spending 8 hours on a zoom call does not add to productivity. There were pluses to being back as well as some negatives.
As the pandemic started to be further in our rear-view mirror there was more pressure from some companies to be in the office. The One company demanded five days, another if you don’t make your 3 days a week for 6 consecutive weeks is automated termination. Hence the start of the Return to Office Ultimatums.
Now for those who don’t know what the Ultimatum games is, it is a psychological experiment in which there are two participants. The first is given a sum of money, say $100.00, and he is to split it with another person known as the responder. The first person is to split the $100.00 between him and the responder. The responder knows that the other person was given the $100.00 and when he is offered his share of the money can accept or reject the offer. They do not get to negotiate, and if they reject the offer the first person can keep the whole $100.00. Now when this experiment is done with people who are known to you (social groups etc.) the split is usually around 50:50. If the experiment is done with a stranger, the split is often less.
Now people are often given ultimatums from people they know, take example things like a partner asking you that if you are not engaged by a specific time that they will break up with you, or a parent demanding grades on children or if you do this, I will never talk to you again. It is amazing how many of these we get in our lives once we take the time to reflect. Some worked out well, others were empty.
The Return of Office Ultimatum spans the gamut of threats of firing, HR conversations, used in reviews etc. Companies can pick what they hope will achieve their goals. I am not an expert on what tactic works best. My previous statement still holds it is team-by-team, possibly a employee-by-employee and in some cases a company-by-company scenario.
What I see as reactions from employees in my company and others is how they react to the ultimatum. In this case the expectation is that the company is part of your social group that is in effect giving you an ultimatum. As the experiments showed people in our social group, we would expect a fair 50:50 split. But most companies are leaning towards 100:0, 80:20 splits. Which the employees see as ‘unfair.’ Thus, we see a lot of pushbacks, anger etc. But unlike some of the ultimatums, this one comes with the loss of your job. Something that unless you can replace your income is easy. The notion that someone in your social circle is doing something so unfair is painful but it is the company you work for really your social circle. Please note, there are many jobs who had to be in person through the whole pandemic and they never got this choice or ultimatum.
There are those who chose to find another job, some lucky people who get exceptions or others who just walk out. What I read in the news and through conversations is that employees just abide by the ultimatum, well in spirit. As a person who manages people my thoughts turn to what I can do so that people are not just following in spirit but finding how to make that time more positive. Unfortunately, I do not have the magic answer as I am still trying to figure it out.
Companies, managers, and employees should understand why there is anger, resentment, and challenge to the ultimatum. There is a saying about expectations if you have low expectations, you can be happier. This was not the case. Understanding the ultimatum game has at least let me figure out at least one key reason for the backlash. Now what to do with that understanding?
This opinion is mine, and mine only, my current or former employers have nothing to do with it. I do not write for any financial gain, I do not take advertising and any product company listed was not done for payment. But if you do like what I write you can donate to the charity I support (with my wife who passed away in 2017) Morgan Stanley’s Children’s Hospital or donate to your favorite charity. I pay to host my site out of my own pocket, my intention is to keep it free. I do read all feedback, I mostly wont post any of them.
This Blog is a labor of love, and was originally going to be a book. With the advent of being able to publish yourself on the web I chose this path. I will write many of these and not worry too much about grammar or spelling (I will try to come back later and fix it) but focus on content. I apologize in advance for my ADD as often topics may flip. I hope one day to turn this into a book and or a podcast, but for now it will remain a blog. AI is not used in this writing other than using the web to find information.Images without notes are created using and AI tool that allows me to reuse them.