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What does the WFH revolution mean for workplace conflict?

A BBC study found that 50 of the UK’s biggest employers had no plans to return all staff back to offices; another survey of SMEs by the Institute of Directors has suggested 74% want to keep the same level of WFH for the future.

That changes the nature of work – and, in the merging of work and home lives and locations, opens up a whole new front for potential grievances and conflict. Workplace investigations are thorny enough, given the sensitivities and complexities involved in personal disputes, but what happens when the focus of attention shifts to behaviours and practices at home?

In principle, having fewer people together in the workplace environment means fewer chances of flashpoints. Evidence suggests that hasn’t happened: despite all the distractions of the spring lockdown, employee tribunal claims between April and June went up by 18% compared with 2019.

Remote working means heightened chances of mis-communications. More polarisation too, as employees – colleagues as well as line managers and their reporting staff – lack the same opportunities for unarranged, informal conversations, to let off steam, get other people’s views and explanations. Keeping a sense of perspective is harder. Isolation also means it’s easier to stew. All systems for performance management, and management in general, are under strain.

Managers are under pressure to introduce change, to do what’s needed to secure the future of businesses, while also juggling the imperatives of making sure staff wellbeing is a priority. The pandemic environment means new employee grievances: over whether levels of performance under WFH have been maintained; the different treatment of staff who have been allowed to WFH and those who haven’t; furloughed or not; attitudes over how the ‘return to normality’ should be carried out by the employer.

More employers are using technologies for monitoring employee working at home. Research group Gartner has predicted that 80% of employers will be using monitoring tools – particularly in a bid to track home workers – by the end of this year. That means location tracking, screen and keyboard monitoring and webcam surveillance. On the other side of the issue, staff having access to work files and data at home presents serious security risks. Since the start of the pandemic, two-fifths of businesses have needed to dismiss an employee because of an online security breach according to a Centrify study. Dissatisfied employees have more opportunities to damage their organisation, and home working means they aren’t under the same social pressures to act in reasonable ways.

The WFH situation makes skills and standards in dealing with and investigation conflict all the more essential for the coming year. The experiences of 2020 have demonstrated how professional mediators and investigators have continued to be able to carry out their roles remotely, building relationships and gathering evidence to help employers keep on limiting and managing conflict situations.   

But professional skills and standards are needed. Managers, generally speaking, struggle to deal with difficult conversations in normal times. In what continues to be an extraordinary age, trying to manage staff remotely, there is much greater potential for problems to flare. When it comes to investigations in particular, there is the greater need to have the ability to build rapport online and help the disputing parties overcome their mistrust of processes and sense of being ‘wronged’; to have excellent listening skills, the empathy and high levels of self-awareness necessary to avoid making assumptions. Data on WFH employees needs to be handled with sensitive and a full knowledge of privacy legislation, what constitutes usable evidence. 

It’s still too early to have seen the real impact of Covid-19 working conditions on relationships, the types and degree of grievances, but it’s coming, and 2021 will be a year when conflict processes and management capability will be tested to the full. In order for HRDs to make sure investigations processes are watertight, the standards used should follow three ‘golden threads’ of good practice:

Integrity: all of the process, people and policy involved in the investigative process must demonstrate independence, impartiality and fairness; they should be clear about the necessary commitment to being guided by the evidence and eliminating bias; with awareness of the impact of social identity on their judgement. Investigations shouldn’t just be handed over to senior managers – those most liable to make snap judgements based on what they think they already know.

Transparency: the process, people and policy need to demonstrate openness and honesty with stakeholders, in order to give confidence in the fairness and rigour of the process while maintaining confidentiality.

Proportionality: should be applied at all times, not only to the timeliness of the process, but to the volume and relevance of the evidence obtained in relation to the severity and complexity of the issues and the likely outcome and impact on the parties and the organisation. 

Oliver Mundy, Associate Investigator at workplace relationships experts CMP

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