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Working in Isolation Without Feeling Isolated?

isolation-without-feeling-isolated

Companies have long struggled with the question of how to ensure telecommuters’ commitment to their teams and the organization as a whole. However, the necessary distancing measures under COVID-19 pose new challenges for companies to show their employees that they care.

by Bernadette Bullinger, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at IE University.

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For companies, a crisis like the current pandemic is a situation of high uncertainty and extreme pressure. With companies facing massive business and financial consequences, their priority is to keep the business running. What many neglect, however, is that their most precious resource is human, and that their employees suffer from the crisis too. Unfortunately, worries about income and job security are not unfounded, while confinement and social distancing put additional psychological stress on employees.

An expected surge

Depending on the industry and the nature of the job, switching to telecommuting—working from home and using information technology to communicate with clients, students, peers, and managers—is increasingly feasible. In 2018, the Netherlands was the European country with the most telecommuters; according to Eurostat, 36% of employed people usually or sometimes work from home. We can expect that this current crisis with its unpredictable course—and end—will show that working from home is possible for many more who used to work from the office, and that it is smart for companies to prepare for this option, at least as a contingency plan.

Both a blessing…

Ever since IBM pioneered telework in 1979—having 40% of its workforce working remotely by 2009—companies have showed varied reactions to the practice. Apple and Google famously rejected the idea of telecommuting altogether. However, reduced costs for facilities, less time (and CO2) spent on commuting, and increased productivity—employees who appreciate the flexibility of working at home actually work longer hours and tend to perform better—are arguments for telework.

…and a curse?

Other companies continue to have doubts about how working from home affects innovation and workers’ commitment to the organization. Creative tasks seem to require physical closeness: colleagues bumping into each other at the coffee machine, sparking unplanned but momentous conversations, which is still hard to transfer to a virtual environment. Companies also have trust issues; they expect their remotely working employees to slack off—out of reach of the managers’ watchful eyes and the organizational culture’s invisible hand.

Show that you care

However, during the COVID-19 crisis, companies insisting on employees who could work from home coming to the office send an unintended message: that they don’t trust their people and don’t care about their health. Companies that managed to switch to telecommuting quickly should also bear in mind what messages they send to their workforce. How can firms enable employees to work in isolation (and safely) without feeling isolated?

  • During a crisis, focus on the long game. Keep in mind that right now there is no “business as usual.” Even if work can be done remotely, during countrywide lockdowns, employees need to look after children, care for dependent or sick people, or simply take time to adjust to a crisis so severe that it has been frequently compared to war. Expecting people to be as (or even more) productive is not sustainable.
  • Supporting, not monitoring. It’s generally a good idea for companies to assume that their teleworkers are capable of working independently (or to just allow independent workers to telecommute). Micromanagement in the form of overly specific instructions, early morning teleconferences to make sure that employees get up, are counterproductive. Focus on motivating through performance goals and flexibility instead and provide support.
  • Communicate more and better. Telecommuters generally feel isolated and unseen, not least when it comes to promotions and raises, which makes them anxious and work more. A good line of communication with managers and peers can counteract this effect. During a crisis, providing relevant information, saying “thank you” to employees for their flexibility in switching to online work, and sharing their pain are simple but important things to communicate to employees.