Around half of the world’s population is on lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, a public health emergency that has claimed thousands of lives and sparked fears of the worst global recession since the Great Depression. This has had a profound impact on the world of work, as well as our mental and physical well-being.
While nobody would choose to go through this crisis, social scientists, management professors and psychologists around the world are watching closely, keen to investigate the effects of this enforced global experiment.
Some people will suffer from post-traumatic stress, says Adam Grant, Professor of Management and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. However, Grant also suggests there may also be some post-traumatic growth, in which people realize their inner strength and a deeper sense of gratitude.
Grant is an organizational psychologist, best-selling author and host of the podcast, WorkLife.
“I study how to make work better,” he said in an interview with the World Economic Forum’s World Versus Virus podcast. “That might mean redesigning jobs to make them more meaningful and motivating, trying to build cultures of creativity and generosity in teams, or even trying to make entire organizations more productive.”
I spoke to Adam Grant to find out more about the impact of the pandemic on the world of work.
Leaders could take the opportunity to give their employees more control and, hopefully, discover that they can trust them to manage their own schedules, he said. Leaders may want to become more hands-on in learning about their employees’ values, interests, strengths, and motivations. Meanwhile, organizations as a whole may embrace home working and continue to experiment with different ways of working after the crisis is over.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, which you can listen to in full in the player above. You can also subscribe to our weekly podcast about the pandemic, World vs Virus, here.
First and foremost, this is a global health and economic crisis. But, for many millions of us, we’re battling a loss of normalcy in our daily lives. How well-prepared do you think we are to deal with a situation like this? Does it play to any of our natural strengths or is it more likely to expose our weaknesses?
It’s a little bit of both, like everything else. The challenging part is, as human beings, we don’t like uncertainty and unpredictability. There’s even some evidence that if you’re highly neurotic, you actually prefer experiencing pain over being in the dark about what you’re going to experience. That’s a part of the crisis that’s really a challenge.
On the flip side, we’re highly adaptable. Darwin wrote when he was building his theory of evolution that natural selection favours a sense of flexibility. It’s not always the strongest species that survives; it’s sometimes the most adaptable.
I think one of the ways we can cope with the uncertainty is: when you can’t imagine the future, you can actually rewind and think more about the past. You can recognize hardships that you’ve faced before. You can learn something from the lessons of your own resilience and then try to figure out “what did I do effectively before that might work for me today?”
I still hear a lot of people complaining about FOMO – the fear of missing out – even though there’s nothing really going on. Has COVID killed FOMO or exacerbated it?
I prefer to think about this less in terms of FOMO and more in terms of what’s often called JOMO, which is the joy of missing out. I actually made a list of all the things I’m thrilled that I don’t have to do, and that includes changing out of sweatpants [and] having to commute.
This is a practice that’s pretty useful for people. We have a lot of evidence that marking moments of joy can actually create those moments of joy because we’re more likely to notice them. We’re more likely to savour and share them. Being able to capture a few things that are really joyful about getting to stay home seems like a productive step.
We’re all separated from our teams. How can we maintain a sense of belonging while isolated at home?
I don’t know that it’s easy. In one company, they did a virtual tour of their home offices. That gave them the chance to talk about some of the mementos that they keep nearby. They were showing off pictures that their kids drew for them. And it was a great moment of personal connection in a way that never would have happened if everyone was in the office.
I’m not suggesting that’s the perfect fit for everyone, but it seemed like a small step that can make a meaningful difference in feeling like I learned something new about my colleagues, [that] I see them more as human beings as opposed to just achievement robots.
Every team has its introverts and extroverts. Do you think this crisis has levelled the playing field between them?
I wouldn’t go that far. I think the reality of the current situation is we’re still catering to extroversion. We’re now sitting on video calls all day, as opposed to saying: “You know what, maybe we should have fewer meetings”.
We’ve known for a while that that introverts’ voices tend to get overlooked in a group setting. This would be a good time to experiment with moving towards some more independent individual work, which we know is the best approach if you want to generate lots of good ideas in groups.
One of the simple practices I would recommend to make sure that introverts don’t get drowned out is to shift from brainstorming to brain-writing. So brain-writing is a process where you [ask] all the people in a team to come up with ideas independently, then submit them. Then you review them. That leverages individual strengths around coming up with original ideas and allows the group to do what it does best, which is to begin to evaluate and refine. That’s probably one of the most effective ways to make sure that introverts are heard.
Through this crisis, managing expectations has become even harder. All of a sudden, we’re workers, we’re teachers, we’re providers, we’re cleaners. Should we try and keep up? Is this good for our sanity?
This is a time when leaders need to be flexible and compassionate. This is not an experiment that any of us opted into, but as long as we’re stuck with it, as a leader, it’s an opportunity to say: “If I impose less control over people’s schedules and plans, that’s going to teach me whether I can trust them or not”.
We’ve known from a couple of decades of research on management and monitoring that when people are monitored too closely, that signals distrust and they respond by saying, “I don’t really feel obligated to act in a way that you might consider trustworthy”. Whereas when you allow [people] to make some choices, they start to feel a greater sense of loyalty and they reciprocate the trust that they’re shown. Given that we don’t have a lot of options anyway to control people, this is the ideal time to do a little bit less of it.
Is this a particularly challenging time for managers, and what advice would you have for them?
I think this is a great time for leaders to be more hands-off when it comes to scheduling and planning. Where leaders may need to be a little bit more hands-on is in figuring out how their people are doing on a day-to-day basis. This is one place where leaders have an opportunity to learn.
Imagine if you’re a manager, how awkward it would be in year two to sit down and say: “I’d love to find out what you’re finding interesting in this job; what aspects of your work you find meaningful; and are there changes we can make that would make your job a little bit more exciting?”
This is a moment when leaders can take a step back and say: “I haven’t always learned as much about my employees’ values, interests, strengths, motivations as I should have, and what better time than now”.
How does work/life balance work in a crisis like this?
Work/life balance has been a myth for a long time. If you care about your family, and you care about your job, and you also want to prioritize health and friendships and hobbies, the idea that you might have even a day where all those things are in perfect harmony to me is hysterically funny, if not just wrong.
What I always strive for is balance in a week, where I might have two days where I’m pretty focused on my work and I don’t get as much time with my family as I want, but then I’ll have two more days where I’m in family mode and work takes a backseat. That’s probably the most realistic way to manage this crisis – to say [that] instead of work/life balance, we ought to think about work/life rhythm.
You’ve written a lot about givers, takers and matchers. Does this period of self-isolation when working remotely magnify or reduce these qualities?
Giving, taking and matching are just different styles of interaction that we bring to the workplace. Givers are people who by default want to know, “what can I do for you?” Takers are the opposite. They’re interested in figuring out “what can you do for me?” And then matchers hover in the middle of that spectrum and say, “I don’t want to be too selfish or too generous, and so I’ll do something for you if you do something for me”.
The takers may feel like they have a little bit more licence to shirk, maybe to steal credit for other people’s ideas. I think though, we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of generosity in this crisis. The givers really see this as a situation where they need to step up. They feel a sense of responsibility to try to help. My guess is that matching gets weeded out a little bit. I don’t think that most people operate like matchers because it’s their core value. I think people match because they’re afraid of the risks of over-correcting on either side. In these situations, people probably gravitate more toward fundamentally, am I more of a selfish or generous person?
One of the big frustrations for givers in a situation like this is they don’t always know where they can help. A couple of years ago, I cofounded a knowledge-sharing platform called Givitas, to make it easy for people to seek and give help in five minutes a day or less. I would love to see more of those kinds of efforts to make sure that we can make people’s needs and requests visible, so that the people who have the motivation and the ability to contribute are able to direct their energy in the way it’s needed.
You said recently that interruptions are part of our new reality. Many people are struggling with distractions and procrastination. Are there ways to make ourselves more resilient to this?
I don’t know that that resilience is possible when it comes to interruptions, because the problem is less that they’re a source of hardship; it’s more that they’re distracting and it’s hard to get back into the task. Probably one of the best things we can do is try to find a sense of self-compassion.
Psychologists like Kristin Neff say, “think of the kindness that you would show to a friend who was in a situation like yours. What happens if you apply that same kindness to yourself?” When we get interrupted, instead of getting frustrated, I can say, “okay, this is a really difficult time right now”.
Interruptions are part of the human condition. They are an intensified part of the human condition during a pandemic. I know I’m not the only one facing these. Let me just see if I can get through today without losing control. If I don’t succeed today, I’ll try again tomorrow. When we don’t beat ourselves up like that, it’s a lot easier to move forward as opposed to wallowing in the challenges we’ve faced in the past.
Is there anything positive that may come out of this crisis?
We’re going to see a lot of employers embrace more flexibility around working from home and having virtual teams. They’re going to find out that it wasn’t as impossible as they thought it was, and there are some productivity gains that come from not having to commute, and getting to work where you want.
On an individual level, unfortunately, there are some people who are going to face post-traumatic stress. The encouraging news psychologically is over half of people report a different response to trauma, which is post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the sense that, I wish this didn’t happen but, given that it happened, I feel like I am better in some way. It might be a heightened sense of personal strength; it could be a deeper sense of gratitude; it could be finding new meaning, or investing more in relationships.
Being so eager to get back to normal, having gone through this long crisis, how do we make sure that we learn from this experience?
Learning from an experience like this comes from reflection. As people come out of this crisis and start coming back to work, the first thing that I would do is have a discussion about what everyone learned from the experiments they ran. Some of those experiments were by force, others were by choice, but we’ve all had to test out different routines and the way we work.
I’d want to hear what everyone tested out, what worked and what didn’t, and then keep evolving what we thought were our best practices in light of that. That would be something that you continue doing. Last I checked, experiments are the best way to learn.
Presumably there’ll be some powerful insights for you to learn from this whole experience?
There are going to be some incredible natural experiments that are already being run. They’re going to be analyzed, and we’re going to be able to see what’s the effect of having to work from home on productivity at a scale that’s never been tested before. We’re also going to learn something about what happens to people’s creativity and connection when they can’t interact face-to-face with their colleagues.
There’s a whole group of organizational psychologists, as well as sociologists and management professors, who are going to spend the next five, 10 years studying the effects of this pandemic in different places. In a way, another form of post-traumatic growth is we gain new insights about how to work together effectively from a distance that we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. And I wish we didn’t have access to it. I’d rather not go through this crisis. But given that we’re stuck with it, we might as well try to learn from it.
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