The pandemic has accentuated differences within organisations: frontline workers versus remote workers; between senior executives who want to see staff in offices and their workers who prefer flexibility and want to avoid lengthy commutes; or those who have a nice home office versus those in cramped conditions; furloughed staff and those who kept working, to name a few.
Laura Empson, professor in the management of professional service firms, City’s Business School, says: “There will be some people for whom [lockdowns] will be a positive experience when it comes to work, and for others it will have raised fundamental questions about not just how they work but why they work.” Among the latter group, there will be huge differences, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead: “The fortunate people have been able to afford a midlife crisis. Precarious people have worried about their livelihood. In both cases, it will make people feel hesitant about work.”
Employers in countries where vaccine programmes allow relaxation of social distancing rules and hope that bringing the workforce together in the office will provide a chance to fire up their employees, to launch new plans, projects, and strategies may find their organisation is shattered, fractured by such diverse experiences of Covid-19 and frayed by the stresses of working during a pandemic, squeezed by home-schooling and heavy workloads amid a turbulent jobs market. Just as the pandemic highlighted social divisions including racial and health inequalities, sparking broader political movements, notably Black Lives Matter, so too at work, in some cases spurring employee activism.
Organisations will have changed
The implication, says Empson is that “the organisations we return to will be different to the ones we left as we’ll be different. We all create organisational culture — it will be changed.”
Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect, the union representing UK civil servants and engineers, points out that remote working is not possible for everyone within an organisation, and risks reinforcing divisions between workers, for example a divide between engineers who are required on site, or more junior office workers who may be required to keep offices open five days a week, while senior colleagues can work in a hybrid manner. “There are real risks that we intensify existing inequalities in the labour market highlighting the power imbalance between different job types and difficulties for many roles to be done remotely.”
During lockdowns, fractures in organisations may have deepened because remote colleagues have formed deep connections with fewer co-workers creating metaphorical bubbles, says Rosalind Searle, professor in human resource management and organisational psychology at the Adam Smith Business School at Glasgow University. Employees’ usual ways of making sense of their experiences by chatting with others in the office will have been upturned and they may feel detached from the wider organisation. “They are more likely to be more siloed with individuals’ exchanges [focusing] on those with whom they have the existing stronger ties. As a result there is a confirmatory bias likely to be in operation — [in other words,] echo chambers with views becoming more entrenched and less challenged.”
Batia Wiesenfeld, a management professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, expands: “In interpersonal connections with a co-worker, we feel ‘individuated’ — that is, seen, heard, and understood as an individual. Group identification ‘de-individuates’ us — that is . . . our sense of connection is to the group rather than to another individual. People find it easier to engage in the individuating relationship-building online, and while that collective type of identification can be maintained virtually it’s a lot harder to create.”
Many will feel a sense of stagnation
Friction in the organisation may be exacerbated by burnout, or “languishing”. The latter is a related issue described by Adam Grant, professor of organisational behaviour at Wharton, as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness”.
Maja Korica, associate professor of organisation and management at Warwick Business School, says that leaders have to trust workers. “The pandemic has triggered some managers’ worst base instincts, as evidenced by growing digital surveillance [and] oversight at work, virtual presenteeism and lengthening working days. Such distrust is unlikely to lead to good work. If people have a sense of ownership and meaning regarding their work, this is likely to bring more joy, especially after an emergency period.” She recommends having honest conversations about “things being a bit blah”, with senior leaders openly talking about their own challenges of just keeping going.
After more than a year of crisis working, some organisations are reducing hours, offering sabbaticals, wellness days or compressed hours. PwC offers staff sabbaticals of at least four weeks on 20 per cent of pay. The auditor is also offering cash incentives to workers to take their holiday allowances.
Yet days off, or managers’ exhortations to take a break, count for nothing if workers return to piled-up workloads or become anxious about their job security.
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for UK human resources staff, says: “There’s no point in having wellness initiatives if people don’t have time to participate. We have time blocked off in the day [when] people can take time off — but those won’t work if the volume of work is too much. It’s also those kinds of management behaviours that are unrealistic. We need more focus on prevention and recognition of what people are under.”
Recognise what workers have achieved and contributed
Moreover, Suff says, organisations do not make enough of recognising how workers have contributed. Many do not even ask staff how they would like to work in the future. According to research undertaken by the Chartered Management Institute, only half of UK managers surveyed had a formal consultation with staff over plans to return to the office.
For some people, burnout will trigger a process of reassessing work, though a career or job change might be delayed in such a turbulent economy. “You don’t make a life-changing decision within the year of divorce or grief. I’m assuming over the next 12 months the dust will settle and everyone’s options and lack of options will become clearer,” says Empson. “This isn’t something that people shouldn’t just have to snap out of — it’s a transformation process. It’s going to be incredibly important to allow space for different people to process these things.”
Organisations have to prepare employees for the return, says Searle. “What has to be avoided is the poor management of employees’ emotions. Anxiety is critical — employees may behave in uncharacteristic ways — with stress-related shouting or meltdowns emerging.” The failure to let people vent their concerns may backfire.
Victoria Short, the CEO of Randstad UK, the recruitment agency, says venting may be cathartic or bonding but ultimately, complaints need to be turned round. “Start by asking the person to imagine how he or she will feel if nothing changes — if the stagnation remains. Then ask them to think about how they would feel if they changed things, highlighting the gap between action and inaction.”