COVID-19 could create ‘a stronger virtual community’

Among the various layers of the all-encompassing coronavirus crisis, companies have largely shuttered their office doors and are allowing their employees to work remotely. In the long run, could the workforce actually benefit from this dramatic shift?

“At the end of the day, I think we can do quite a lot remotely. The question remains, after companies realize during this crisis that work can successfully be performed remotely, will they still have that policy in place once everything calms down?” says Prof. Michal Biron, Associate Professor in the University of Haifa’s Department of Business Administration and Visiting Associate Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

Prof. Biron is currently based in Seattle, one of the American cities that has been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Her research focuses on stress and burnout, organizational deviance, HRM practices in knowledge-intensive organizations, the nature of employee relations with co-workers and supervisors, and the implications of such relations for both individuals and organizations. In the following interview, she unpacks the outlook surrounding the current uptick in remote work.

Q: What are your thoughts on the longer-term impact of a more global tele-community?

A: “The number of people who are tele-commuting is currently low and growing only slowly in most countries, which makes little sense when considering the technology we have in place. I refer to developments in information and communication technologies and the widespread availability of computer and internet access that enable the separation of work tasks from the physical workplace in many sectors, including knowledge-intensive jobs and service jobs. Many employees can actually perform a large portion of their work remotely, but the lingering question remains, ‘Why don’t most employers allow their employees to work from home?’

“Part of the answer lies in the mixed results that research on this subject has produced. Some studies have showed evidence of the positive outcomes of tele-work, including better work-life balance and reduced stress for employees, alongside higher productivity. Still other studies show the opposite — for example, that people who work remotely feel isolated, professionally and socially with the upshot being lower performance.

“Together with my colleagues Wendy Caper from University of Texas at Arlington) and Sumita Raghuram from San Jose State University, I try to unravel this inconsistent evidence by looking at tele-working as a dynamic process. That is, we need to consider how employees transition into or adapt to tele-work over time. People need to learn how to tele-work more effectively, especially given the current situation. They need to learn principles such as establishing a physical separation between workspace and personal space at home, as well as to improve their time management. They also need to redesign the way they interact with other people at work and home. Moreover, organizations need to train and prepare their employees how to transition into tele-working; it’s not something you learn in a day.”

Q: What are the ramifications for those who are forced to work from home amid the coronavirus crisis?

A: “Creating blocks of time and spatial separation while kids are home during work hours is not easy. In normal times, for instance, during summer vacation, I could keep my kids busy together with the kids of two of my friends, and they will do so the following days. Grandparents can help too. But now because we’re supposed to be isolated, that’s tricky. My advice for this coming period would be to create a structured weekly schedule, with time blocks designated for parents’ professional work, kids’ schoolwork, and fun — each day. Again, it is important to create clear time and spatial separations between work and family obligations, and have the kids be part of the planning and responsibility to follow through. For instance, you can tell children not to enter your workspace during the block of time decided upon, unless the matter is urgent.

“Together with my PhD student Oz Levy and my former PhD student Dr. Keren Turgeman-Lupo (from Netanya Academic College) I started collecting data from employees who were encouraged or forced to move to remote work due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The plan is to collect data in China, Israel, and the U.S. Hopefully we can learn from this unfortunate outbreak on how tele-work fosters resilience from a personal, organizational, and societal perspectives.”

Q: Is the virus a catalyst for the beginning of a virtual gated community?

A: “On the one hand I want to say yes, because this provides a very clear opportunity to put into practice and test our ability to communicate remotely, almost on all ends. On the other hand, it places stress on the whole notion of a global community, with borders shutting down and the such.

“The question is, can we overcome civic separation using technology and our state of mind, which is already going global? Ultimately, I think we can weather this condition and at the end of the day we’ll probably have a stronger virtual community.”

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