The coronavirus has turned most workplaces on their proverbial heads. Daniels Management Professor Cynthia Fukami shares her thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on workers’ identities, job security, human resources management, organizational structure and more.
Q: How has the pandemic changed our work identities?
A: Working from home is surely affecting our identities. Social identity refers to the sense of who we are based on the groups to which we belong. Most people have multiple identities because they are members of multiple groups. Work-family conflict is an example of a consequence of multiple identities. For example, an employee now working from home, who is also a caregiver of children or elderly relatives, is likely feeling conflict. If I’m on a conference call and my child interrupts, the conflict comes from which identity I prioritize. I could ask my child to wait, I could excuse myself from the meeting or I could try to do both simultaneously. Work identity is important to most people. We spend a third of our lives at work, which not only produces economic returns but also creates an important source of social interaction, which is a basic human need. The physical separation from coworkers likely causes stress and dissatisfaction. The pandemic has temporarily changed that routine for most of us.
Q: What are the effects on workers who feel insecure about their jobs due to the pandemic?
A: Those who fear a layoff are at the very least distracted by concerns for loss of income, loss of social relationships, and are probably seeking information about their status. All of this takes away from productivity and causes stress and burnout.
Q: How might organizations change after the pandemic?
A: It is likely that some jobs will be eliminated and some will emerge. We are also learning more about which jobs can and can’t be performed remotely. Interestingly, some white-collar and professional jobs could be affected by artificial intelligence.
Q: What are some takeaways for those working in human resources?
A: To maintain social relationships, regular face time interactions are critical. Some firms are scheduling virtual happy hours, for example, which help people stay connected. Human resource leaders should establish policies about equipment: Determine who is responsible for providing broadband, computers, monitors, etc. They should decide if workers must have someone else watching their young children during work hours. Do we expect a 24/7/365 presence at work, which means people are working more than 40 hours per week? Or can employees have time to recover and deal with the other complexities of life during a pandemic? Should we dress professionally while working from home or are sweats acceptable? Are people trained in the communication skills necessary for virtual communication?
As for telecommuting, strong economic and environmental arguments can be made for virtual workplaces, but we seem to have valued physical presence and managerial control over these likely benefits. I don’t expect that virtual workplaces will go away—I believe they will increase, but I also believe we will still have some form of physical workplaces and face-to-face human interaction. Effective relationships at work often boil down to playing well with others in the sandbox. Now we need to figure out the rules for a new sandbox.