Forgetting the other: diversity and life in lockdown

During my two plus decades working in business schools, working from home has established itself as a common practice for many academic colleagues, although notably less so for professional services colleagues. For many, this was a choice as part of their way to manage life and work; but this time, of course, it’s different! The current situation leaves few of us a choice, whether we are academics or work in professional services. This forced relocation, however, has seemingly not changed the expectation that work and performance continue as “normal”. When I articulated this to a friend, via a “new normal” social zoom get-together, a niggling worry grew; the implicit assumption outwardly is that work continues and progresses at the same pace with similar levels of “output” as pre-lockdown. Speaking about this brought to the fore that there are numerous visible and invisible (often deliberately hidden) constraints that may contest this assumption. As I got to reflect on this, questions on difference, otherness, empathy, and trust surfaced.

By way of context, working from home is not a new topic among the human resources management community and has been discussed hither and yon in the last few years. The common conversations about working from home go something like this: research points to benefits of working from home, such as increased job satisfaction, increased productivity, support of work-life balance initiatives, or reduction in carbon production by reduced commuting. But not all of the evidence univocally endorses working from home. Some research highlights the negative impact that home working can have on our ability to “switch off”. Work is everywhere and this leads often to our inability of segmenting work and our lives outside of work (Chawla, MacGowan, Gabriel, and Podsakoff, 2020). Working from home may also impact our social relationships and thus may have an effect on our sense of belonging, something we know is pivotal for job satisfaction. Evidence suggests that working from home can increase work-family conflict; a feeling that we are not performing either of our roles, as a private person or a professional employee, to the best of our ability (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985).

While this evidence is insightful, it has one major problem in the current context; all of this research was done pre-COVID-19. The suddenness, intensity, and length of working from home is beyond of what many of us have experienced to date. Some early research is emerging that looks at how the wellbeing of individuals may be impacted by the requirement to work from home during this pandemic (e.g. Carnevale & Hatak, 2020); however, this work is in very early stages. A second, not so obvious, shortcoming of existing research, relates to diversity in its broadest sense. Existing, pre-COVID-19, research addresses, for instance, work-life balance and the negative effect home working can have on women (e.g. Lewis & Humbert 2010).  But beyond gender, few other facets of diversity have been considered and discussed.

Why do I bring this up now? Over the last 13 or so weeks since lockdown began, I have observed and heard about the pressures that the aforementioned assumptions about “normal” performance places upon colleagues and friends. I recognise within myself that I, at times, forgot that we are not experiencing this lockdown in the same way and that our anxieties, worries, and challenges are significantly different. They are different because we are different! We may, for instance, forget the impact that living alone has on our performance. Being isolated from our social networks, or at best reduced to two-dimensional, technology-enhanced communication, may exacerbate or bring-on significant personal challenges that impact how we work. Also, we may not appreciate the range of caring responsibilities colleagues have to deal with. We all had jovial moments of having children unintentionally interrupting virtual meetings, reminding us starkly of the reality of combining work with childcare responsibilities. But what about colleagues who have to care for relatives or neighbours that are elderly or that suffer from serious ill-health? What about our assumptions regarding the ease of transition to remote working, when we often forget about digital literacy and digital poverty (which is independent of how economically rich or poor a household is)? What about colleagues who have a disability, impairment, or other ill-health condition that has not been disclosed (we know that disclosure figures, while rising, are still low)? Of course, there are many more unique, life-defining challenges, and combinations thereof, that are not named here. My point is: have we consciously considered all those barely visible and invisible facets of what makes us diverse and that these can impact work and performance?

What all of these facets have in common, unfortunately, is that the onus is on the individuals to share their stories and challenges before we take note. Our assumptions and expectations on performance are not mediated by the lockdown per se and, I dare say, they are rarely mediated by a widely held, inherent empathetic or trusting view of employees. They are mediated only if and when we are being told about the challenges an individual is facing. Consequently, in addition to the already existing challenges and pressures, we are adding pressures by expecting colleagues to reveal personal circumstances that to date were of no direct consequence. They were part of a private persona and generally played little role in day-to-day performance evaluations.

Having thought about this, I found myself wondering where empathy and trust fits in. We should not expect a readiness from colleagues to share deeply personal experiences before we appreciate that performance in times like this cannot look the same as in previous years. We should trust our colleagues that they do all they can. If the result does not fit with our general notion of performance, we probably need to adapt and rethink – this is not straight forward as we are all grappling with re-defining expectations in uniquely new working environments. Our starting point should be to presume a legitimate reason for a difference. We should all aim to think about the varying experiences that our colleagues are having, acknowledging that the situation is uniquely different for every one – without judgement and comparison. We need to trust that colleagues share our overall goals and our commitment to work. If this is the starting point, maybe we can make a small difference in easing pressures in these peculiar times.

By Professor Edgar Meyer, Deputy Dean, Leeds University Business School

 

References

Carnevale, J. B. & Hatak, I. (2020). Employee adjustment and well-being in the era of COVID-19: Implications for human resource management. Journal of Business Research, 116

Chawla, N., MacGowan, R. L., Gabriel, A. S., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2020). Unplugging or staying connected? Examining the nature, antecedents, and consequences of profiles of daily recovery experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(1)

Greenhaus, J. H. & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of Conflict Between Work and Family Roles. Academy of Management Review, 10(1)

Lewis, S. & Humbert, A. L. (2010). Discourse or reality: “work-life balance” flexibility and gendered organisations. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 29(3)

Discussion

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