Whether it is the Pandemic, War, or throughout any crisis in the history of the industrial world, there have been profound changes in how organizations conduct business. One of the significant changes is in leaders’ inability to be physically present in the workplace, with many employers switching to virtual workspaces where employees perform their job duties at home. This switch has enabled many organizations to survive the Pandemic by providing services that allow for financial viability.
There are considerable benefits of remote working during times of crisis. However, despite this survival, this presents challenges for employees who work from home because of decreased emotional connectedness through face-to-face interactions. Further, the paper argues that remote working can lead to a loss of emotional connection to others, with remote employees experiencing grief, using the Kübler-Ross (1970) Model of grief. Failure to connect emotionally can be easily remedied through specific interventions to create a working environment that includes positive group dynamics, co-creation, psychological safety, and a positive vision for what one must accomplish. In addition, by leveraging the theory of the Zeigarnik effect, we can help remote workers better understand the benefits of completing more tasks and goals as a method of stress reduction. And at the same time, it is essential for every organization to co-create its strategies and practices around the best working environments that produce the most positive working relationships and business outcomes.
A great deal of research supports both a blended, remote, and on-site working culture. This paper contends that companies must deeply analyze employee desires to remain in remote working environments vs. on-site, and thus create either a blended or fully remote. For both working conditions, it is reasonable to assume that creating a positive emotional connection as defined in this paper is the best methodology to assist employees with the acceptance of the new working environment. The emotional connection intervention requires that employees and leaders engage in specific exercises to co-create their own desired future for their ideal working environment.
Emotional Connection and Working Differently
Research on remote working has shown that many leaders desire to work from home because it increases their flexibility in balancing work-family obligations (Grant, Wallace, & Spurgeon, 2013). However, a study by Lautsch and colleagues found that remote leaders still need social connections with their supervisors and colleagues (Lautsch, Kossek & Eaton, 2009). Remote leaders need frequent contact with supervisors to stay engaged and motivated (Lautsch et al., 2009). Mann and Holdsworth (2003) demonstrated the psychological impact of remote working in a qualitative study among 12 journalists. The journalists experienced a stress reduction yet reported feeling lonely and more irritable due to social isolation and the inability to discuss work issues with colleagues (Mann & Holdsworth, 2003). In the qualitative study by Grant and colleagues among remote leaders from different industries, they found that social interaction was a significant predictor of psychological well-being (Grant et la., 2003). The remote leaders strove to maintain communication with colleagues outside of work. Many of the leaders stated they would prefer to be in the office, as shown in a comment, “I’m probably a person who would enjoy coming more into the office rather than staying at home.” The participants also stated that it was challenging to have rich social interactions because many of the nonverbal cues became lost due to communication through social media (Grant et al., 2013). In their research on remote leaders, Dery and Hafermalz (2016) found that many remote leaders struggle with staying connected with colleagues to build a sense of belonging. Many of these leaders rose above this sense of isolation by using technology to maintain social connections with those within the organization (Dery & Hafermalz, 2016).
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Remote Working, Connectedness, and Grief
The Kübler-Ross Model of Grief helps us understand people’s emotional reactions when dealing with any change, whether the loss of a loved one or sudden changes in social and occupational life, such as the impact of the Pandemic. Kübler-Ross argued that people experience several stages of grief that are not necessarily linear and include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1970). Organizational scientists have utilized the Kübler-Ross Model in understanding organizational change. Deone Zell (2003) conducted a study within an academic setting among college professors. Professionals typically run universities in a bureaucratic environment, making them difficult to change. Zell (2003) interviewed professors in a physics department of a large public university and found that the changes and emotions felt within the department resembled many of the stages in the Kübler-Ross Model. The physics department was in decline with less federal funding and decreased student enrollment. This backdrop was the basis for the interviews. Professors experienced emotional reactions such as denial, with most physics professors refusing to acknowledge the decline in student applications to the physics program (Zell, 2003) shown in this comment “physics is still the most powerful education.” (p.79, Zell, 2003). There was anger against the decline in funding, with professors stating they were trying to push novel research but could not do so because of the lack of money. Once the realization set in, many professors resorted to bargaining through writing more proposals to get more funds. Still, once these efforts did not pay off, many professors became depressed, with one senior professor commenting, “Let’s face it. The era of big science is over.” Once the department accepted the changes, there was a shift to focus on new branches of physics, “with other physics branches fading out, we had to find something that was growing.” (p.84, Zell, 2003), and so the department shifted to biophysics.
The other challenge with dealing with a crisis such as COVID19 is that many employees experience job insecurity, particularly as businesses have furloughed or dismissed staff because of the economic downtown. Research on job insecurity, whereby people fear losing their job, is also related to several stages in the grieving process. In the beginning of a change that threatens job security, employees might feel threatened and deny it is happening, increasing anger (Noer, 2009). Additional research also suggests that when individuals experience organizational changes, this leads to emotional changes similar to grieving (Castillo, Fernandez & Sallan, 2018). In the study by Castillo and colleagues, they found that denial and anger appear together, with individuals also bargaining and experiencing depression. Individuals move between these stages, so the stages are not linear (Castillo et al., 2018).
Moreover, they added two new stages to how dealing with change is similar to grief, consisting of revising and deserting, and these two stages always last. When individuals experienced denial and anger, their relationships with colleagues and family members improved. However, during the depression stage, the relationships with family members deteriorated, but the ties with colleagues became more important to them, so these relationships improved (Castillo et al., 2018).
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The research illustrates how it is essential to implement interventions that foster connectedness so that remote workers can sustain interactions with their colleagues. Organizations can implement interventions to create a culture of belonging, such as virtual group meetings that foster connection. These virtual team projects focus on innovation and developing new products, practices, and processes, and enacting leadership strategies that focus on having a positive vision for the present and future.
The Zeigarnik effect suggests one way to help remote workers feel connected and be productive. The Zeigarnik effect demonstrates that individuals and organizations tend to recall incomplete tasks and wish to finish them to get closure (Burke, 2011). Consequently, organizations can empower remote workers better by setting goals that aim to complete unfinished tasks. In his article on the history of organizational development and change, Burke (2011) argues that a revolution needs to address four specific areas: loosely coupled systems, culture change, resistance, and leadership development. By specifying the four areas for improvement, Burke utilizes the Zeigarnik effect to persuade OD practitioners and researchers that there is a need to finish ‘unfinished’ business. We argue that the same requirements are present in remote working, especially during a crisis such as the Pandemic: positive group dynamics, co-creation, psychological safety, and having a positive vision for achievement.
Figure 1 shows the Leader Resilience Intervention model and the relationships between co-creation, positive group dynamics, psychological safety, and a positive view of the future.
In terms of positive group dynamics, organizations can provide developmental sessions for remote workers to equip them with team member skills such as effective communication. Effective communication will ensure that virtual meetings create social interactions and discourse that empowers virtual teams. Organizations can set objectives that focus on innovation and creativity and build coalitions that engage in co-creation. To boost social connectedness, organizations can ensure and build policies and practices that foster psychological safety. Our research on emotional sentiment suggests that leader sensitivity impacts employee work behavior (Carter & Towler, 2020). Organizations must ensure that leaders are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and competencies to foster strong relationships in the workplace, especially when workers are remote and lack connectivity. Leaders can also play an essential role in sharing a positive vision with remote workers. Transformational leaders create a vision for their followers and guide changes through inspiration and motivation (Avolio & Bass, 1994). Organizations can equip managers with transformational leadership behaviors to be prepared to deal with remote working due to a crisis such as COVID19. The recent leadership models focus on embracing complexity through ensuring that leadership is “multi-level, processual, contextual, and interactive.” (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009, p631). Complexity theory focuses on social interactions within a network. For organizations to remain robust, it is important they leverage social connectedness by increasing social ties between workers at all levels, both remote and traditional.
This review shows that a crisis such as COVID19 leads to employees feeling a lack of connection with their organization and can be likened to experience a loss such as during a bereavement. It is important to consider employees’ emotional reactions to change and sudden events such as the Pandemic in designing and implementing interventions to enable organizations to weather the storm. The involvement of leaders and employees in the process and creation of practices for remote working and the movement back to work is critical.
Avolio, B., & Bass, B. (Eds.). (1994). Improving Organizational Effectiveness through Transformational Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Burke, W. W. (2011) . “A Perspective on the Field of Organization Development and Change: The Zeigarnik Effect.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 47.2 (2011): 143-67
Carter, Louis, Towler, A. J. (2020). The importance of organizational emotional sentiment: Development of a measure. Under review.
Dery K., & Hafermalz E. (2016) Seeing Is Belonging: Remote Working, Identity and Staying Connected. In: Lee J. (eds) The Impact of ICT on Work. Springer: Singapore.
Grant, C., Wallace, L., & Spurgeon, P. (2013). An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote eworker’s job effectiveness, well being and work life balance. Employee Relations, 35, 5, 527-546
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. (1970, c1969) On death and dying. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan
Lautsch, B.A., Kossek, E.E. & Eaton, S.C. (2009). Supervisory approaches and paradoxes in managing telecommunication implementation. Human Relations, 62, 6, 79, 827.
Mann, S. & Holdsworth, L. (2003). The psychological impact of teleworking: stress, emotions and health, New Technology, Work and Employment, 18, 3, 196-211.
Noer, D. M. (2009). Healing the wounds: Overcoming the trauma of layoffs and revitalizing downsized organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey‐Bass.
Uhl-Bien, M., & Marion, R. (2009). Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organizing: A meso model. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 631–650.
Zell, D. (2003). Organizational Change as a Process of Death, Dying, and Rebirth. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 39, 1, 73-96.
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Louis Carter is the founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute and the author of more than ten books on best practices in leadership and management, including Change Champion’s Field Guide, In Great Company, and Best Practices in Talent Management. Thought leaders and executives voted him one of Global Gurus Top 10 Organizational Culture thinkers worldwide