Dear Thelma: I work for a toxic manager and an uncaring office management


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Dear Thelma,

I've been working for three years, going on four, with this company.

It was going well till we expanded and moved to a bigger space in 2020. We started as a startup and with the expansion now, the direction is going towards a corporate work style which is still acceptable.

However, the management seems to build a more toxic environment, employees especially those who practise transparency are usually oppressed and ignored.

In the second quarter of this year, permanent remote working was announced during our townhall meeting and has proven it is doable, increasing productivity and revenue.

To our surprise, two weeks ago they decided to change the policy and informed everyone the WFH policy was redundant, and we need to return to office (RTO).

But here's the catch, it only applies to certain departments – mostly those dealing with clients (our business is not a client-facing nature, it is all done remotely or in clients' place/public place according to the arrangement made), unless there's a request to use our office facility which needs a day or two in the office, out of the five working days. Also this rarely happens, as mentioned earlier, as most things are done remotely with the clients.

Nonetheless, this really showed how biased and unfair they were while preaching equality, value and transparency. Of course the affected departments tried to request for a more reasonable setting under the hybrid model but it was turned down immediately.

Management never considered the arrangements everyone had made due to the permanent WFH policy that was initially implemented. Married employees with children did not have to spend on caregivers, and most employees also saved a lot from food to parking and avoiding traffic. Mentally and physically, it was very rewarding but short-lived.

If they had wanted to micromanage, why implement the WFH model in the first place?

Most companies have shifted to the hybrid model, but here we are, going backwards.

At the end of the last quarter townhall meeting, employees were allowed to ask questions anonymously, so I did.

My work involves working shifts, on weekends and public holidays.

So in the RTO announcement, HR highlighted engagement and communication.

My question was: "Engagement and communication was highlighted in the announcement. Does management know it is depressing for those who worked under 24/7 rotation to work and eat alone in the office, especially during weekends or public holidays, where others are not present? Where does engagement/communication apply, and can management consider hybrid?"

Someone from the management level responded, "Your feelings are true, but your opinion is invalid. You are alone (when working) remotely too." This clearly shows assumptions and lack of empathy. How is this person assuming everyone works alone remotely? Even research shows employees are happier and more productive under hybrid/remote working.

There were a few more responses from the same person such as, "You want emphatic benefits or money for your work – choose one", "Management are not a bunch of a******s". This person clearly does not bother about the mental state of the employees when he/she responded.

In my last response, I spoke the truth: "This place truly has become toxic", to which the person responded, "If it is toxic, you should leave. You only care about your opinion."

It sounded very personal and defensive.

We have been busting ourselves working to prove we can move forward as technology is advancing too, but no survey was conducted prior to this big U-turn decision-making. Employees were kept in the dark, questions were raised on why it only applied to certain departments and not to all, but those were left unanswered.

The disappointing part is the one who responded might be from our very own department. This person is known to keep work matters personal. I am the type of employee who tends to voice out when it really matters (concerning welfare and remuneration).

I am disheartened by how little they appreciate the backbone of the company – we work so they can sleep peacefully at night. Am I wrong for asking them to compromise? Would it be wise to go for another opportunity?

At the crossroads


Dear At The Crossroads,

Thank you for your beautifully detailed letter. As I read it, your emotions are clear.

You are hurt because your bosses don't care about your opinion or even your results. You are dismayed because they made promises and are now u-turning. In fact, they say one thing and do another. Plus, they don't care about worker costs. Even their language is unprofessional, arrogant and crude.

It's awful to discover that the bosses we work for don't care about us, and so your shock is quite understandable.

The WFH discussion is now global, and it's a fascinating one. I think a bit of history will put things into perspective and help you make informed choices.

Until the 1980s, workers put in hours, then went home and forgot about business. Technology killed work-life balance. Mobile phones and laptops meant workers were always within contact.

Over the years, not having a personal life became normalised. Workers laboured at home late at night, over weekends and even during their holidays.

By 2017, Malaysians were working an average of 15 hours more than their contracted hours each week – and burning out.

Frankly, while the pandemic was horrendous, one good thing has come out of it: We're examining our priorities. Many have decided they work to live, not live to work.

Also, the pandemic proved conclusively that while some jobs need personal attention (nursing and farming, for example), many jobs can be done from anywhere.

Company owners now have a real opportunity to reshape the world of work and to make positive change.

Some are embracing change. They're implementing WFH and hybrid systems, and truly trying to restore work-life balance for everyone, from the CEO down.

However, it means changing work culture. One challenge is to put in boundaries. Bosses have to respect that workers have personal lives. They have to plan properly and to trust their team.

Also, as so many have worked an extra 15 hours, that's two extra days a week, for free, many companies have to hire extra staff. And that hits their pockets.

Finally, there is natural resistance. Few of us truly embrace change, and so many bosses will hanker for just going back to what they used to know.

Workers don't have much power. We don't like that knowledge, so we try to not believe it. Also, as we spend so much time labouring, we typically identify with the corporation. We invest in them and we hope that they value us.

And now we are back to your problem. My dear, your bosses told you who they are. Believe them.

Process your emotions, and then focus on what is best for you.

As your manager pointed out, you have choices. One way is to go for a shift in mindset. You offer work in return for money. So do the work, take the money, and disengage a little. Know it's just work.

Another option may be to move to another department. One that provides the environment you want.

Alternatively, spruce up your CV, put the word out, and go work for bosses who share your values. You would not be alone. Many people are leaving in pursuit of work-life balance.

And many are also looking to employers who are invested in their staff.

I hope this helps you think it through. Whatever you choose to do, good luck to you!

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