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Officism, a New Type of Workplace Discrimination, Could Disrupt Hybrid Work Plans

Fortune 500 firms take preemptive action to prevent officism from having negative effects on company culture

TEMECULA, Calif., September 21, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- With the coronavirus Delta variant summer surge delaying many return-to-office plans, a new source of conflict could erupt between workers who have returned to the office and those continuing to work remotely. The conflict could disrupt any chance of a smooth transition to a hybrid workplace.

Perceptyx, a leading employee listening company, found evidence through its work with Fortune 500 customers and a panel research survey of more than 1,000 working Americans, that officism -- defined as negative attitudes toward employees who continue to work remotely instead of returning to the office -- is clearly present in today’s workforce. The news for remote workers gets worse. Managers, who are directors or above, exhibit the highest levels of officism compared to individual contributors. Those managers are the same people who are designing hybrid work plans while the Delta variant of COVID-19 still surges around the world. 

More than half of the respondents to the survey viewed remote colleagues unfavorably, even though research shows that remote workers are just as productive as their physical workplace counterparts. Nearly two-thirds of employees have become accustomed to working remotely and say they want to continue to do so indefinitely.

“If these views persist, it’s likely there will be long-term disadvantages for those employees who want ultimate flexibility in where, when and how they work,” said Dr. Brett Wells, Director of People Analytics at Perceptyx. “The high officism level we’re seeing in management is particularly troubling if employers want to retain those employees who aren’t sure about returning to the physical workplace. It’s important to educate managers and make workplace policies that demonstrate fairness and avoid potential conflicts between the two groups.”

Those who harbor high levels of officism believe that employees are not as productive when working remotely (59% of U.S. workers), that there is greater potential for career growth for those in the physical office (68%), and that co-located managers and employees have better relationships (76%).

After running a comprehensive listening program across its 15,000-member workforce, one Fortune 500 Perceptyx client found that employees’ attitudes toward remote work varied greatly by job profile.

First the company devised specific personas based on how and where employees worked, paying particular attention to hybrid roles. Corresponding manager profiles connected to the personas informed future training programs and aimed at preventing officism effects.

Survey data was sorted by persona to inform, support, and resource efforts during the transition to in-office work. Just one out of four employees said returning to the office would be easy for them, and barriers to this were largely centered around work-life balance and personal safety. The company took this direct feedback and designed its return-to-office plans with the personas in mind. For example, they learned that employees would feel more comfortable returning to the office with flexible scheduling, physical distancing, and frequent cleaning, among other health and safety measures. Survey-informed personas were used as foundations for employee experience journey maps, playing out key employee-manager interactions over the initial three-month return-to-office.

Gen Z Employees Show High Levels of Officism, Ready to Return to Office

In the Perceptyx study, Gen Z respondents, surprisingly, showed the highest levels of officism:

  • 73% believe working remotely poses too many distractions.
  • 77% believe it is more effective to collaborate when everyone is physically together.
  • 83% believe it is easier to gauge productivity when employees and managers are in the same physical location.

While the stereotype of millennials paints them as living on their phones and preferring remote work, the evidence points to quite the opposite. They may be the workers most willing to return to the office compared to older cohorts.

Ways to Curb Officism

Wells said that while officism might be a longstanding feature of the workplace in a hybrid work environment, there are several ways to combat it with employee listening programs:

  1. Move beyond traditional performance measures: Employers will have to rethink basic annual supervisor ratings of performance where everyone “meets expectations.” For example, employers might want to ask: “If this person left the company, would you rehire him/her?” Connecting organizational success to team and individual performance, then testing for officism is a better way forward.
  2. Emphasize skill development, talent mobility and high potential identification. Just as you would test and ensure that protected groups of individuals have equitable opportunities, add remote workers to this list and communicate success stories of remote employees who continue to grow and develop in their careers.
  3. Foster relationships. Listening programs should be finding ways remote employees can build connections. Hiring for an HR role that is responsible solely for the remote employee experience will add expertise and help ease the shift to hybrid.

Wells offers more guidance on the future effects of officism in this short video. Click here to watch.

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