A large part of the organizations had Labor Day in mind as the starting point for their plans to introduce Labor. But the rise of the Delta variant and groundbreaking infections have all thrown a curve ball. Most employees seemed willing to return to the office a few days or more per week, but their greatest opposition was their desire to work from home. Unfortunately, they now have a new main concern: is it still safe to return?

These changes highlight what is likely to be an ongoing problem with reintegration initiatives – that companies and their employees are doomed to disagree for the foreseeable future.

The ongoing conflict is not tied to a specific decision, but to the overarching perspective in order to distinguish right from wrong. The ongoing challenges of pandemic volatility have sparked a never-ending ethics-based debate with no end in sight.

Organizations are designed to look at ethics from a utilitarian perspective, thereby maximizing benefits for all parties involved. Alternatively, individual employees are psychologically attracted to consider ethically relevant decisions from a moral perspective. From this point of view, right and wrong are not determined by the results, but by whether the act itself respects undeniable human rights.

Organizations and Utilitarianism

This is a classic ethical conundrum that has been well explored with the “trolley car” thought experiment. Imagine you are a tram driver who is skidding over the tracks. There are five people on the track and they will inevitably be run over. You only have the choice of turning the wheel of the trolley onto a siding, where it inevitably only passes over one person. Almost all of them report that they would spin the wheel; save the five, but injure one. It’s simple math. This is the utilitarian mindset.

Organizations are a collective. Your goal is to maximize stakeholder value. This involves considering the needs of all parties – shareholders, employees, society – and then “calculating” what is in the best interests of all of those stakeholders. Just like this trolley car scenario, the return of organizations to working positions corresponds to the utilitarian perspective. The decision about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair is a huge matrix of cost-benefit analyzes across all stakeholders. When people come back to the office, yes, that increases the likelihood of infection rates. And yes, when people return to the office, the likelihood increases that things will be closer to normal business operations in terms of collaboration and productivity.

In the toolbox of organizations to reduce the risk of infection are things like compulsory vaccination, wearing masks indoors, air filtration and improved ventilation, distancing and limiting capacity, disinfection of high contact surfaces and increased hygiene, and temperature monitoring. Each of these levers has costs – be it financial, employee well-being and benevolence, or otherwise. Each of these levers also has an advantage – be it improved collaboration, productivity or the like by enabling interaction in the office.

Employees and moral rights

Consider a second tram scenario. This time you are a spectator watching the tram from a bridge above. You know the tram will inevitably go over the Five. This time, however, the only way to save the Five is to push another bystander off the bridge onto the platform and drive the tram away from the Five. The result is the same as in the first scenario; you save the five, but hurt one. Interestingly, almost all of them report, although the result is the same, that they certainly would not push the viewer off the bridge. What’s so different about turning the steering wheel than pushing the viewer off the bridge?

This second scenario represents the moral rights perspective. This perspective suggests that it is wrong to act when a decision does not respect the inalienable rights of everyone as a human being. It feels wrong to push the viewer. They are not inherently part of the tram operation. Plus, it feels too personal. While turning a steering wheel (or sending an email) may feel technical, it feels morally gross to push someone with your own hands.

This is usually the ethical mindset through which employees view decisions about how to return to work. Is it fair to ask me to return to the office when I’m more productive at home? Is it fair to ask me to work in an environment that is not 100 percent safe? Is it fair to force someone to have a vaccination to go to work? These questions are essentially questions of personal rights.

The importance of ethical perspective

Ethical decisions are complicated. The decision of what is right or wrong depends on the ethical point of view from which we are looking at the situation. Both parties – organizations and their individual employees – would be well served to understand the other side’s perspective. It may not help solve the problem; It is unlikely that everyone will fully agree. But when both sides can share perspectives, they are more likely to make positive progress together.

In some cases, employees may recognize that it is in their best interest to forego this moral perspective. For example, vaccinated employees may see that going back to work can in some situations help the company succeed and increase the likelihood that they will have a stable job in the future. The same applies to organizations, so that some organization managers have committed themselves to a purely remote working environment for the time being. They recognize that when employees feel that their moral rights are highly respected, they increase employee wellbeing and hopefully increase employee long-term engagement.

Ethics, like life, is complicated. There is no right or wrong, everything is in the eye of the beholder. The sooner everyone realizes this, the sooner we can agree to disagree and work towards collaborative solutions that respect the needs of all parties.

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