This year felt a little bit like that classic Spider-Man meme with everyone in the workplace pointing their fingers at each other.
Who is to blame for all this unhappiness at work? A lot of it probably had to do with the lack of trust.
Watercooler gossip spread (mostly via Slack) of employees working two jobs on the clock, outsourcing their jobs to others, or acting like they were working from home while living a digital nomad lifestyle. Bosses, paranoid about not being able to see their direct reports in person, were also rumored to be lying about remote opportunities or reneging on promised pandemic perks.
The reality is, as always, somewhat less interesting: 2022 was a year of miscommunication at work more than anything else. Just like characters dealing with a fabricated conflict an hour into a rom-com, bosses and employees kept failing to see eye to eye. This became especially apparent as companies struggled with a number of failed attempts to get their workers back to the office. The whole world seemed to debate the future of work, with battle lines drawn between those who want a radical change in where and how we should work and those who want to return to 2010s office life.
“We're going through a massive kind of philosophical transition in the way we view work,” says Kim Ades, CEO of Frame of Mind Coaching, a career coaching firm for leaders. The traditional way of work, where managers can monitor employees in an office, is clashing with the new self-guided approach to work that requires trusting employees to get their work done remotely, she explains to Fortune. It’s a tough pill to swallow for some executives, and it’s creating a troublesome communication gap that makes everyone mistrust one another.
“We have a whole bunch of employees who have certain needs, and they're not expressing those needs very well,” Ades says. “And we have a whole bunch of leaders who aren't able to access or understand those needs.”
Debunking the employee lie
As some employers pushed for a return to normalcy, many workers went to great lengths to hang on to their newfound flexibility and work on their own terms. After all, they were just as productive working from home for more than two years.
In a time when salaries aren’t meeting the cost of living, some people took on two jobs to increase their paycheck. These “overemployed” workers have been living Hannah Montana lifestyles at work. “It was way easier than I thought it would be,” a 25-year-old worker juggling software engineering and software development jobs told the Guardian. “Both companies have very low expectations, so I’m not really struggling to get away with two jobs.”
Meanwhile, others have been outsourcing their jobs. It’s nothing new, wrote Rebecca Knight for Insider, but remote work carved out more opportunities for it. Knight also documented how employee and job-candidate fraud are on the rise, such as having peers impersonate candidates or complete a coding test for them. While it’s difficult to track real data, she says, the anecdotes are plentiful throughout Reddit.
Then there’s what Bloomberg calls “stealth workers,” who might put on a warm sweater while working from a desk at an Airbnb in Tulum just to look like they're based near their company’s NYC headquarters. They’re operating under a work-from-home policy that may not necessarily translate to work-from-anywhere due to tax purposes.
While some of these workers might be blatantly trying to get away with something, Ades says most just aren’t truly communicating or are taking initiative after their employer refuses to hear them out. “There's no evil player here,” she adds, explaining that people find an avenue that works for them when faced with a lack of opportunity or flexibility. She cites an example of a young professional she coached who asked leaders for more responsibility only to be denied. With extra time on her hands, she ended up working a side hustle, with two computers running in front of her.
“Who is cheating who?” asks Ades. “The issue is that organizations aren't taking time to really understand the capacity and the potential contribution of each individual.”
The bulk of what’s going on is a lot less extreme than straight-up lying, seconds Stefanie Tignor, VP of data science at human resources software company Humu. She adds that forgetting to be intentional about checking in, especially while working virtually, can lead to unintentional fibbing.
Employers don’t know how to communicate
Workers aren’t the only ones under scrutiny for seemingly deceptive actions. Cofounder of HR platform Topia Steve Black explained in an op-ed for Insider that some companies are advertising remote work with more strings attached than meets the eye. Workers learn after taking the job that the “work from anywhere” promised in the listing comes with limitations, such as not being able to work out of the country because of immigration laws. In some cases, bosses may let their employees discreetly work abroad despite it being illegal, feigning ignorance to the company instead.
And coming into year three of the pandemic amid fears of a recession, some CEOs have reneged on pandemic employee perks initially designed to retain employees in a hot labor market and to address their mental health. Salesforce ended its monthly well-being vacations, while Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg started sending memos about more aggressive expectations right before laying off 13% of his company.
But this is all mostly a response to ever-shifting times, says Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin & Associates.
“Most employers are truly confused about their long-term hybrid work strategy, so they may expect to have remote work jobs, but later in 2023 decide that they are ‘hybrid’ and require some amount of time in the office,” Bersin tells Fortune. “Most companies are struggling with these policies now.”
If employers straight up lie about remote opportunities they’ll simply lose the remote candidates, he says, adding that they likely aren’t regularly doing this because it can create image issues. “The reason this appears to be happening is the very rapid changes in employment strategies: open the office, close the office, all work at home, some work at home, hybrid work (whatever that means),” he says. “CEOs are adjusting these policies almost weekly, so the external communications just don’t always keep up.”
Workers and bosses need to curb their missed connections in 2023
Because we’re still adapting to a somewhat post-pandemic work environment, it’s too early for concrete data on how prevalent deception is in the workplace. But the stories of deceit show that remote work has fostered new opportunities for employees to try to work on their terms, creating conflict for companies desperate to retain and attract workers in a hot market.
Companies might be serving a bit of a white lie when they say individuals can work from anywhere, just as workers might not be telling the entire truth when they pretend they’re working from home while actually traveling the world. But remote work and digital nomading are new-ish trends with new legal problems to navigate; it’s very possible no one really knows that they’re actually lying until the tax bills come in.
Besides, Tignor says, these situations are rare, and managers can avoid them by focusing on the day-to-day and having regular conversations. Since they’re often the face of the organization these days, they’re tasked with building trust and being a company spokesperson without being properly trained for it.
While employee-employer trust can be just as strong remote as it is in person, she adds, it does take more intentionality to build in a remote environment. A lack of continual contact and support can be the breeding ground for instances of miscommunication that look like a lie at first glance.
Providing clear expectations could also relieve some of the pressure, Ades notes. “If we looked at the workforce differently, if we looked at our outputs differently, then there wouldn't be so much of a clash.”
“Everyone's just trying to do their best,” she says. Here’s to a year of trying our best a bit harder in 2023.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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