The Implications of the COVID-19 Work Environment

Many businesses started the new year with eager goals and high optimism; however, the first and second quarter have come and gone – and the results show devastating marks. Global economic turmoil, immense unemployment, forceful small business closures, supply shortages, and entire work teams stuck at home. All of these negative impacts can be contributed to something no one saw coming – the coronavirus outbreak, a human tragedy that has left a pervasive impact on all parts of the globe. From healthcare to education to the global economy to a person’s mental health, this biological disaster has altered the way a single person lives his or her daily life. As a current university student, the impact of this virus has had both personal and academic implications. I did not have the opportunity to finish my junior year of college from my beloved college campus. Simple daily motions have now become luxuries that no one in the world can truly afford, as this global pandemic does not discriminate; it has forced everyone into their homes under a mask of quarantine – well for the most part.

From a business and management perspective, this forceful movement of people inside has transformed the way employees approach their daily work. Before this outbreak, people followed morning routines, commuted to work, attended team workshops, and met with clients face-to-face; however, as a result of current circumstances, all non-essential workers have been moved to their homes where they must continue to work, and as a result, many have experienced a shift in their motivation and work productivity. The movement of workers from their physical office spaces to their homes has impacted three levels of an organization: the entire business, the work team or group, and the individual employee.

Beginning this discussion of work environment transition, I want to focus on how the business at-large has been affected by more employees working from home. For a long time, working from home, or telecommuting, was not a socially acceptable practice. The idea of telecommuting was associated with lower work productivity and less team interaction. A major example against this practice can be seen in 2013 when the former CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting for all Yahoo! employees. Though Mayer’s decision came with backlash, her reasoning for this policy makes sense. By ensuring all employees come to physical office locations, they will be able to work effectively, collaborate openly, and creatively solve problems. In the case of current circumstances, however, employees cannot enter their physical office locations. This brings upon the question: how does this work environment transition affect a business or company at-large? The first thing I have noticed throughout this entire experience is how adaptable organizations are becoming. From creating Microsoft Teams accounts to purchasing Zoom licenses, many companies are beginning to accommodate current circumstances by looking towards virtual communication platforms to maintain a connection with their employees.

Another way I see the current work environment transition impacting businesses is from the perspective of diversity and inclusion. As businesses continue to work towards creating an effective and efficient at-home work experience for employees, they are slowly building an infrastructure to make telecommuting a more normal practice. In the future when this pandemic ends, the idea of working from home will become more acceptable – and because businesses were forced to operate in such an environment for a long period of time, they will be able to accommodate the needs of specific employees. For example, if someone who possesses a mental illness or simply prefers working out of the office requests working from home, the organization will likely not reject this wish, as they now have more experience with coordinating activities and maintaining business operations in a work from home environment. Therefore, the transition from in-office to at-home has been challenging, as companies must adjust their work environments and expectations; however, in the long run, this opportunity could strengthen a businesses’ work from home capacity, creating opportunities for more global and inclusive work environments to form.

Moving downward, how has the work team or group been affected by the in-office to at-home transition? This level is likely the one to experience the most challenges as a result of this transition. Both work teams and groups have been disrupted as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. The first way these work relationships have been impacted can be observed in their communication processes. I have seen firsthand how communication has been altered among work teams and groups by observing my parents. As a result of this pandemic, both of my parents have been forced to work from home. Watching them navigate this work transition has been interesting. My mom told me that if she had a simple question about a project’s timeline, she could simply walk down the hall to ask one of her colleagues; however, now she must use her phone to call her teammate to obtain an answer to a question – and if she receives no reply, she must send a text. This complication can create lag and prevent her from reaching maximum efficiency in her work.

Another way work groups have been affected by this at-home transition can be seen in group decision-making. In general, it is believed that group decision-making is favorable when one wants to include more perspectives and generate more complete information; however, as working groups no longer see each other face-to-face this can become harder. Most groups meet each other in person to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. With small computer cameras and a lack of technological flexibility, it has become harder to simply brainstorm with group members. Additionally, the lack of non-verbal communication prevents groups from truly seeing how their group members feel about certain decisions.

Given these limiting factors, working from home has presented difficulties for work teams and groups; however, the circumstances occurring globally have made working from home the most responsible decision, and so the best way managers can ensure that their newly formed virtual teams and groups are working effectively is to do the following. First, establish trust among members. This pandemic is a time full of uncertainty and fear for many. Managers should work to foster an environment in which employees continue to feel like their efforts and work matter. Second, managers should monitor progress closely. Being aware of timelines and mishaps that may occur with this work from home transition will allow them to meet deadlines and targets. Third, managers should publicize the efforts and products their teams are producing. This will ensure that the entire organization continues to remain connected – and that the team does not become invisible. Although this work environment transition has brought upon challenges for work teams and groups, the availability of online communication platforms has provided employees with opportunities to continue to communicate and collaborate.

The final level that has been impacted by this in-office to work from home transition is the individual, the single employee. This time has been marked with a lot of uncertainty and confusion for many. People are worried about their health, the health of their family and friends, their jobs, and the overall impacts this pandemic will continue to have. On top of these concerns, the lack of social interaction and the prolonged periods of isolation can contribute to mental health deficiencies for many. Given these circumstances, the individual employee obviously feels a shift in his or her emotions and mood. Emotions are intense feelings that are directed at someone or something, while moods are less intense and arise without a specific stimulus. Put simply, moods are long-lasting, while emotions can come in small bursts. From personal observation, I have noticed my parents and how this work environment transition has impacted their daily emotions. When my dad is unable to connect with one of his colleagues, he becomes frustrated. The call dropped, there is a lag in connection, or the calendar had the wrong meeting time – these small inconveniences have negatively affected my dad’s work from home experience, and thus have also made him experience negative emotions, such as anger. In terms of mood, the overall constant I have noticed in myself as well as in my family can be categorized into the negative affect mood dimension, which consists of negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, and nervousness. In general, having such pessimistic emotions and moods can be counterproductive, as employees must still try to maintain positive attitudes when working with others. This illustrates the emotional dissonance that many employees are likely experiencing. They feel anxiety due to current circumstances, but they must continue to produce output and maintain positive work relationships to complete their jobs.  

The best way a single employee can contribute to a more positive work environment during this time is to develop a sense of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to understand emotions in themselves and in others. By understanding emotions, the individual can regulate his or her emotions accordingly. For example, if a teammate shows signs of frustration during a video conference call, the other employees on the call can show emotional intelligence by trying to understand why that person is frustrated. Perhaps their teammate is experiencing anxiety, or the video conference software was not cooperating. When individuals gain a sense of emotional intelligence, the business can run more effectively, as employee relationships will begin to include more trust and empathy.

The coronavirus outbreak has transformed my life in many ways. I never imagined completing my junior year of college from my childhood bedroom. I never imagined my dream internship being shortened. I never imagined not saying goodbye to some of my friends who are graduating. These moments of uncertainty, however, are not a singular experience. Many people hold these same feelings. Observing this from the perspective of a business, I have seen both dark and light. Some challenges this pandemic has prompted include forcing businesses to build sustainable technology infrastructures, requiring teams and groups to modify their communication processes, and causing employees to manage emotional side effects; however, there are also opportunities of hope, as this experience will promote adaptability within businesses, create new ways for teams and groups to interact, and encourage employees to gain emotional intelligence. Though these moments prevail, and many do not know what is to come, this experience has created opportunities that will force businesses, work teams and groups, and individuals to grow, for me to grow.

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