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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

home v remote working - mediation is on hand for potential conflict

There’s a real divide between those continuing to work remotely from home and those who have returned to work in the office. Tensions mount as we all start to get back to a semblance of normal life. Take Joel and Marta’s story (the names have been changed for confidentiality).

Joel, a junior accounts clerk, was furloughed throughout the whole of the first lockdown and part of the subsequent lockdown. This was Joel’s first job and his confidence had been badly shaken – especially when Marta, who was less qualified and taken on a week after him , was not put on furlough. Joel’s line manager explained it was because Marta spoke Spanish and French which was helpful with the company’s European customers. Both Joel and Marta were recently asked to return to the office for at least 3 days a week. Joel feels somewhat disconnected with office life. He also has some genuine concerns about returning to the office and commuting given he has not yet had his second vaccine (although is booked in next month) and lives with his parents and grandmother who is vulnerable. Marta was more than happy to return to the office and has been coming in for the last couple of weeks.

Joel has noticed Marta has been rather disrespectful towards him since she started back in the office. Her emails are curt, verging on rude - in a recent client zoom meeting, Mandy referred to Joel as her assistant. Joel complained to his line manager who said things would improve if Joel also returned to the office. Joel and Mandy are not communicating and work is suffering.

There appears to be an ever increasing chasm between those returning to the office and those who prefer to stay working virtually from home. The Returners feel they are “properly” back at work and feel the Stay-at Homers are basically doing less than their fair share. On the other hand, the Stay-at-Homers feel the Returners are not taking them seriously and worry about their promotion prospects. But this is a complex situation with many factors at play which employers need to be aware of.

Mediation is an excellent and highly effective tool in these situations. Mediation creates a safe space for parties to explain their side of the issues in their own language (not through lawyers using legalistic jargon) and they feel heard and really listened too. The mediator is a neutral party who’s role is to facilitate the parties to try and reach an understanding, helping unpick knotty problems and use their skills to signpost ways to resolve disputes. There is no judgement, no side-taking and no pressure. If a resolution is not achieved in the time allocated, the parties can choose to come back another time or simply decide to call it a day. However, as the experienced mediator knows, even when a resolution has not been reached, the mediation process in itself can often cause shifts in mindset later on so the parties can often move forwards in a positive way. A good mediator will have invited each party to, metaphorically, wiggle their toes in one another’s shoes and feel what the other might be experiencing. This is extremely cathartic and can sometimes be enough to make the difference.

Joel and Marta were offered mediation. Since the first lockdown mediations have been online via Zoom or another virtual platform and this has proven to work extremely well. Joel was able to join virtually so reducing his concerns of having to commute.

During the mediation process, Marta admitted she had felt Joel was slacking by working from home and hadn’t appreciated his concerns about protecting his family, she had also viewed working from home as less productive and felt she had to take on more responsibility. This made her feel resentful. In turn, Joel acknowledged he had felt threatened by Marta not being furloughed and this had often led him to interpret her actions as aggressive or belittling. He hadn’t thought to explain his concerns to her direct and conceded that by going over her head and complaining to their line manager he had sent out the wrong signals. After listening to one other and giving each other the chance to offload in a calm and safe space created by the mediator, they understood how the other felt which meant they could sincerely apologise to one another. As a result, their working relationship significantly improved.

As we enter uncharted territory, employers will need to navigate these issues extremely carefully and mediation is a brilliant tool to help resolve the inevitable conflicts.

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