The paradox of privilege

When the concept of remote work first made its way into the workplace, there was much debate on how the pay structure should be designed; should it be lower than those expected to turn up to the office given they do not need to spend on travel or should it be higher because of lower organizational infrastructure demands? The pendulum rested on paying them exactly the same as we would anyone coming into an office. Remote workers would have access to a similar benefit structure and pay range as regular employees. This system ran peacefully for years as those working from home came into the system knowing what they were getting into. 

Come March 2020, suddenly everyone who could work from home had to work from home irrespective of choice. Organizations shuttled resources to the extent possible to enable this transition. And then the demands started flowing in. Employees now wanted their work place to fund their home office setup. The demands ranged from requests for IT equipment, desks, and chairs to internet and electricity. Some employees even expected work to ship them stationary that they could have otherwise picked up from the reprography station. All-hand meetings always had at least one employee stand up and question if the saving in company operating costs such as electricity, internet will be repurposed into their salary. 

During this period, different organizations provided different accommodations based on their cash flow, yet the demands never ceased. Every employee was suddenly comparing their organization to the one that offered better WFH accommodation without pausing to consider the factors influencing these decisions. My own emotions ranged from being incredulous to amusement to acceptance. Sure, I would love to have work set up my entire office for me and pay all my utility bills, but I also understand when organizations don’t. As we enter 2021 and contemplate what our long-term strategy looks like, it is probably a good time to summarize how salaries, reputation and privilege works. 

How salaries work 

Pay ranges are determined basis the organization’s compensation philosophy, market positioning, job type and job level. These are reviewed annually unless there’s a sudden shift in market forces. Individual pay is usually independent from an organization’s utility bills or operating costs. Hence, when electricity, internet and other expenses increase, it is not taken out from an employee’s salary. Similarly, any real or perceived saving on these do not automatically find their way into a bonus payment. 

How reputation works 

Organizations recognize that crisis is an opportunity in disguise; how they manage employee expectations at critical junctions will determine future employee perception, productivity and employee sentiment. It for these reasons that organizations go above and beyond obligations to provide what is possible given other constraints. These additional perks can range from IT equipment, furniture to stipends to help cover additional costs. These gestures go a long way in impacting long term reputation in the market. However, organizations also recognize the concept of marginal utility. If they provided free food in the office, parcelling food to employee homes will only make an incremental dent in long-term reputation. 

How privilege works 

The biggest irony though is how privilege works. There comes a time when every employee will come to see a benefit as a right vs privilege and demand more. Over the last many months, I have only seen demands grow. Employees across industries are all comparing their organization to the one that gave more. First it was keeping their job safe, then IT equipment followed by furniture requests. Soon after followed demands to reimburse electricity, heating and the internet. These expanded to cover stationary, being allowed to work from anywhere in the world to ultimately demanding a share in operational cost saving. The paradox of privilege is not lost on me. No matter how much you give, people will always demand more and the more you give, the less satisfied they become. 

However, the piece that stays with me is the difference is expectations with those hired remotely vs those who had to move to remote work due to the lack of choice. Ultimately, ‘choice’ is determining employee behaviour to a large extent, and tweaking this factor can help manage expectations in 2021. 

The more I think about it, the more I realize that 2020 will continue to teach me many more lessons I had not previously considered. 

This post was first published here.

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