How will COVID-19’s impact the way we work?

Working during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some unique challenges as employees adjust to a virtual work environment from home. Wharton Management Prof. Nancy Rothbard said the ways in which we confront those challenges could change the way we work permanently. Rothbard called into Wharton Business Daily to talk to host Dan Loney about the ways some employees are working from home, and how it could shift how we work together after COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

Interview Highlights

1. Some people are “segmenters” and some are “integrators” when it comes to drawing the line between work and home.

“‘Segmenters’ are people who like to keep work and home separate, whereas ‘integrators’ are the kinds of people who prefer to blur the boundary. Integrators don’t mind the kids’ pictures in their office or taking a work call at home that kind of thing. I’ve been studying these types of folks for years and in this new work from home reality that we’re living in, it’s particularly challenging for segmenters, or people who like to keep a sharp line between work and home. We can’t do that right now even if we want to.”

“For people who are segmenters, there’s a lot of work they need to actively do to be more comfortable in this type of  environment. And that involves doing two things: really thinking about how to use your time and thinking about how to structure your space. From a time perspective, a segmenter is going to be much better off if they stick to a routine or a schedule. They have a ritual where they transition into their work mode. But a lot of people who are not as comfortable with that shouldn’t be setting up in the middle of the kitchen. The second piece is the space piece of it. They should have a room that’s off to the side where they can close the door, they can lock it, and they can preserve the sanctity of their space.”

2. Working from home now is not the same as working from home before the spread of COVID-19.

“(The idea of) working from home has been around for a really long time, but the severe shock of the pandemic has been a remarkable sea change in terms of how we go about our work. One of the things I want to point out is that when we think about working from home during coronavirus, it’s a little bit different from how working from home has played out in different circumstances. When everybody is forced to be together at home, you have your spouse, your kids, your pets everybody’s at home and nobody really has a choice about it. That’s a little bit different from a situation where you, or your employer, chooses to have you be working from home, either part of the time or all of it. There are a couple of really subtle and important distinctions between what we’re experiencing now and the types of ‘work from home’ experiences we might have under more normal circumstances.”

3. Technology has the ability to connect us, but it can also divide us.

“Technology has been a huge aid to shifting the work from the office to home.  (…) Having high-speed internet and having the ability to connect with our colleagues has really made a huge difference in terms of our ability to simulate being with everybody in the workplace.”

“There’s one piece that I want to point out about technology though. When I say that working from home has gone very smoothly for knowledge workers, that’s not the case for everybody. Some people’s jobs really need to be in the workplace, such as grocery store workers and people shipping goods to keep the flow of food going. Some jobs really don’t lend themselves as easily to work from home and that’s linked to socioeconomics. People who don’t have high-speed internet in their homes are experiencing this in terms of the public school crisis and in terms of the unevenness of people’s access to technology. That’s creating a digital divide, which may be separating us even further. And that’s a public policy worry that we just need to keep an eye on with this type of situation.”

4. Setting clear expectations is the key to ensuring employees stay productive while working from home.

“Managers are very strongly worried that if they don’t see the employee and if they can’t keep tabs on them, then that productivity may slack off. What some companies with customer service workers who are in remote locations have done is keep tabs on screen time and keystrokes.  There are a lot of technological solutions for certain jobs that enable managers to actually have that background surveillance, if you will. It’s a little creepy, but that has been employed for a long time now.” 

“One of the things that managers need to do when they can’t keep tabs on their employees face to face is that they need to be much more clear about their metrics. What are they expecting of employees? What are the goals? Do they care about daily goals, or not as long as there are deadlines met? And so those are the kinds of things that are really important.”

5. Business leaders should think carefully about how work will change after the pandemic has subsided.

“(The pandemic) is definitely a challenge for all of us, but it’s also an opportunity, as business leaders, to really think carefully (about their employees’) metrics. What is it that we expect from our employees? What tasks need to get done and how do they need to get done? Are some tasks totally fine being done individually in a way that is asynchronous? What tasks need to be done synchronously with the team? We’ll be able to work smarter if we can figure that out. We should use the pandemic work-from-home experience as a way to really identify what’s important and identify our priorities in terms of our expectations about individual versus team-based work. If we can use this as a natural experiment, it can allow us to leapfrog in terms of the types of productivity and the work flexibility that we’re able to offer in the workplace.”

Emily O’Donnell


Posted: May 5, 2020

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