Olin expert: Advice for employers in new normal

Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior, wrote this for the Olin Blog. Her research interests include relationships at work and work-life boundaries.

Ashley Hardin

As areas of the country begin to relax and do away with stay-at-home orders, things will not snap back to normal for all employees and organizations. This may seem obvious, but it has huge ramifications for what employers can and should expect from employees during this time.

Some employees may continue to have childcare responsibilities. Some may have high-risk family members in their homes, or they themselves may have underlying health issues that put them in a high-risk category. It may be implausible for certain employees to return to work with the same routines as before the pandemic. Their working style and needs before the pandemic may no longer stand.

The best results are likely to come from treating each employee with care and compassion, rather than trying to enforce one uniform policy for all. For large organizations, one answer could be for leaders to empower lower-level managers to customize their own teams’ working habits.

Care and compassion pay dividends

We wrestle with productivity at this time. An overarching message could be that care and compassion must supersede productivity. Taking care of one’s self and loved ones may inhibit work progress. And that’s OK. Research shows that extending compassion to one’s employees has incredible benefits for individuals, relationships and organizations. Productivity may decrease in the short term, but making the time and space to take care of employees will have real long-term rewards for all. 

My main advice is to be flexible and offer different support to different team members, while trying not to make assumptions. It’s difficult to know what demands individuals are facing. They could have health issues, a partner who is a frontline responder, children in need of care, extended family members who are isolated.

Many workers are balancing many roles simultaneously for the first time. Given this blurring of personal and professional roles, managers should seek to grant more flexibility and open the door to sharing of circumstances. But they also should not demand to know all the details; that can seem invasive. When managers express care and concern and a desire to understand, their direct reports may choose to open up. With that information, managers can seek to be more accommodating. In these times, flexibility and adaptability will be critical in enabling team success.

These times are challenging. People are enacting their professional selves while working in their own personal spaces. The situation opens a window into individuals’ lives that they may or may not find comfortable. Research shows that learning about one another’s personal lives can help to humanize colleagues and foster more responsiveness to their needs. So these breaches of boundaries actually may strengthen teams in the new work reality. Reacting positively to learning new information or sharing information about oneself can help put someone at ease when the boundaries do blur.

An opportunity to adopt new routines

Routines that typically enable productivity no longer exist to rely upon. Newly remote workers or those continuing to be can take lessons from prior research investigating gig workers who are accustomed to working alone and setting their own agenda. Scholars Petriglieri, Ashford and Wrzesniewski found that cultivating connections to routines, places, people and a broader purpose are the most critical. Managers can assist their employees in doing this. 

In addition to the complexities of meeting the differing needs of employees, employers and individuals can use this shift as a time to mindfully adopt new routines. Fantastic innovations in work practices may have taken root during the period of staying at home. Through a practice known as appreciative inquiry — asking about what is going well — organizations can uncover new practices that they can rollout more broadly.

Perhaps some teams found new ways to build connections or new uses for work platforms that ease collaboration. Take advantage of this shift to shed old routines that were not working.

Similarly, organizations can inquire about what employees miss most about work patterns pre-pandemic. What practices should be retained and returned to? The invitation to open up and revamp the ways of working may lead to better organizational functioning in this new phase. 

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