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Organizational behavior June 30, 2020

The hidden costs of the “luxury” of working from home (+ video)

Konstantin Korotov
What the crisis has revealed is how very dependent our work is on other people.

Each year in June, ESMT Berlin invites experts from business, government, academia, and civil society to share their perspectives and experiences as it relates to the hottest topics of the modern business world. This ESMT Annual Forum draws more than 300 guests and is an event highlight of the Berlin campus.  

Because of the coronavirus crisis, the Berlin campus was temporarily shuttered and the annual forum had to be canceled. Nevertheless, we reached out to our speakers, inviting them to approach the forum’s theme – “The New Work Illusion?” – through the lens of the pandemic. 

Work is an important part of our lives. I do not believe in popular notions of the separation of work and life. Rather, I believe that there’s only one life within which work plays a significant role – not only from the perspective of providing us with the resources to run our lives but, for many of us, as a defining factor of who we are or as an answer to the question of why we exist. Work often helps us bring the best of ourselves to the service of the people and communities that surround us and, hopefully, to our own personal development and our approaches to the inner conflicts and challenges that we face. 

What I planned to explore with Annual Forum attendees was this interplay of work and other sides of life. I wanted to delve into the meaning of work, the conditions necessary for work, and even the luxury of work. The latter is something that we are seeing right now, within the context of the coronavirus crisis. That is, the luxury of work is not just the idea of having a good time or doing something meaningful, it is also a place where a person can have their social or emotional needs realized and, at times, something that they cannot find anywhere else, including in the family. 

What the crisis has revealed is how very dependent our work is on other people.

In this mass move to working from home, many individuals – especially knowledge workers –now realize that, for quite a long time, they were not paying attention to all the infrastructure of work – what they need to be able to do what they believe is important and its reliance on those of the physical infrastructure who were actually creating opportunities for them to work. For example, I’m watching news features on German television about how people are struggling with working from home. People who do not have daycare, schools, and other supports for their children are simply not capable of doing their jobs. Some honestly report that they work a fraction of the day and use the rest to take care of their families and other needs. Others complain, Well, after three o’clock none of my colleagues ever respond to email.  

Of course, there are many individuals who are facing a different situation.  For them, working from home has turned into working non-stop. The boundaries have disappeared, so they do not see those micro transitions between work and non-work. In the past, for instance, there was the commute to work. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, near to home or far from it, the commute was a natural boundary. This transition was the space within which they could unwind emotionally or process some of the things happening on one side of the boundary or the other. But now we do not have those options. Now, there is the urge to return to the computer and to work again for whatever reason – reasons that were absorbed by the existence of this natural boundary. 

There are some indications that these challenges are significantly different for organizational leaders. In my conversations with business leaders in this period, the level of anxiety is reaching critical levels. The anxiety has little to do with COVID-19 itself. Rather, they are anxious about their ability to fulfill their roles as leaders, convinced that they are not delivering upon the expectations of their teams. Subjectively, they do not know what is happening and they do not know what will happen. They cannot give honest, reassuring answers that people would buy as fact. At the same time, they feel that they are very needed. Employees are experiencing this differently, yes. Some might be objectively observing their businesses lose money and are, thus, worried whether they will continue to have jobs. In the best-case scenario, they would hear reassurances from leaders that things will be all right. But as the saying goes, talk is cheap. Can any leader really guarantee that there will be no dire consequences for their workers in this crisis? This gives rise to specific challenges for a leader – How do I stay honest? How do I give employees what they need in this moment? How do I make sure that they are not panicking and that they are energized for their work while, simultaneously, acknowledging that I may be incapable (or unwilling, in some cases) to save those jobs? 

While we cannot yet determine the exact ways that this crisis will affect work, we can speculate that it will mean some kind of reconsideration of what happens in the workplace.  

We can expect that these experiences will have consequences on how work is organized and recognized, especially if working from home becomes a new norm for some. For one, those who return to their offices are likely to be mistrustful of colleagues still working from home, because they have experienced its limitations first hand. Second, we’ll have people working more and who will suffer from work becoming a larger part of their life. Third, we’ll also see people who are more limited in their opportunities to work, which will result in their suffering from both how people perceive them and their work and the impact of working from home on their long-term career prospects.  

For leaders, the coronavirus crisis underscores the value of communication in crisis management. When we are in our workplace – seeing our colleagues, clients, and bosses – we get quite a lot of cues that allow us to make sense of what’s going on. Our anxieties are absorbed by the bits of gossip and chat exchanged at the coffee station. Simply seeing a delivery driver bring supplies into the yard sends a signal that there is business continuity. These experiences are missing for those who are working from home, so the silences – when employees realize that nobody has contacted them for some period – can be very scary. Thus, leaders should share with their stakeholders as much as is known and inform them about the process. (When we cannot inform people about the outcome, we have to inform them about the process.) Moreover, this communication has to happen more frequently than before. Even if there is nothing especially “new” to say, still reiterate what is happening and how it is being managed. The mere fact that there is an open communication channel can make the crisis a little easier for those who are suffering and maintain, as much as possible, the feeling of usefulness, the feeling of belonging, and also the feeling of fairness.  

From the perspective of my research at ESMT on organizational behavior, leadership, and executive development, the coronavirus crisis reveals a number of paths to explore.  

How leaders will be perceived is in question. In workplaces, employees can observe and make conclusions on whether or not their leaders were doing their tasks well. In the absence of physical proximity, the leaders they used to see each day are now comparable to distant leaders. How will they make new inferences about their leaders? To what extent will distance impact the ability of the leader to influence people?  

And what of the rights and opportunities of potential leaders? There are some policy discussions taking place at the federal level in Germany about making the option to work from home the right of the employee. How might this affect career development? Even if we can imagine that a leader can perform well from home, will a job performed in physical isolation from those being led be sufficient, especially in the absence of the cues I mentioned above? And to what extent will those who are working from home be cut off from the pipelines feeding organizational development and leadership?  

Ultimately, as a result of this crisis, we will question whether we can afford to work from home. And not just from the perspective of luxury or from the perspective of executives who, by definition, represent a privileged population. What is this going to mean for all those people who have to work in the physical infrastructure that allows some of us to live and work the way we do? 

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