Organizations are rewarding employees for returning to work in person. Here’s how.

And how intentional proximity bias can cause ethical issues.

Companies and organizations eager to bring their employees back into the office full-time are being met with resistance, discomfort and even the prospect of workers quitting rather than returning to in-person work.

Many have turned to perks and benefits for workers who come back to the office, like Duolingo.

Luis von Ahn, CEO of the online language learning company, told NPR that Duolingo’s “‘really good company culture’ is why employees ‘actually really honest to God want to be here.’”

NPR’s Tovia Smith reports that events in Duolingo’s “homecoming week” included an ice cream social, a happy hour, free breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus full funding of employee “clubs” like skiing and wine-tasting.

Some companies are going to far as to pay workers who return to work in person more than those who remain fully remote.

Nicholas Bloom, an economist with Stanford University, told BBC’s Worklife that he’s seeing organizations move toward giving in-office workers salary increases, rather than docking remote workers’ pay.

“Most companies I’m talking to are typically moving to a two-pay system,” he says. Fully-remote workers may see their pay frozen, while people who come back to the office may see a 5-10% pay increase – though inflation means that’s more of a reset than an increase.

But Bloom says he doesn’t see this trend in intentional pay discrepancies lasting long-term, given that it poses ethical and even legal complications. Research shows that women, working mothers and people of racial minorities are more likely to prefer working remotely.

“Next year it will be hot news and maybe there will be lawsuits over this,” he tells Worklife. “People will feel – maybe rightfully so – aggrieved over it. They may say ‘I’m doing the same job as my co-workers,’but that will just die out as these folks are not replaced.”

This conflict can be boiled down into one simple term: proximity bias.

Protocol calls proximity bias “the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts.” Perks, benefits and pay raises offered to onsite workers and withheld from remote ones certainly fall under this definition.

But the idea of intentionally treating onsite workers better than remote employees, rather than chalking the disparity up to cognitive bias, poses a unique problem to communicators who must explain this policy to skeptical employees even as it’s likely tested in court. Combine that with the success of mostly remote office work for the last two years and it’s an even tougher sell.

How is your office navigating a return to work?

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