Coping with diversity in staffs’ needs during the pandemic
The ongoing pandemic has forced us to rethink how we work and organize. These changes and their implications are being investigated in the FutuRemote network as we speak. One interesting preliminary insight is the diverse, even conflicting views and experiences regarding the effects of the change.
As an example of this, some of our informants underline how much they miss the social stimuli of normal office life at the company premises. Others report that the peace of the home office is exactly what they have needed to become more productive. Some tell how remote work is going great as they’ve managed to build a secluded, ergonomic workspace at home. Others describe feeling physically ill as they’re forced to work in a walk-in closet with a small screen and uncomfortable chair. Some describe how they wish company management to give strict guidelines on when and how to work and collaborate remotely. Others underline how the increased work-related autonomy brought about by remote work has increased their productivity and motivation.
The conflicting anecdotes listed above illustrate well the strong variance in perceived effects and experiences related to the work-related changes from the pandemic. Aspects that have improved the well-being and work engagement for some have caused them to plummet for others.
These contradictions entail an important implication. It is obvious that organizational members need support in order to thrive in this ”new normal.” Some times good support initiatives can be relatively universal: for example, improving ergonomics of everybody’s home offices are likely to be widely useful. However, on many occasions, things can be a lot more complicated. Whereas for some, mandatory departmental virtual coffee breaks can help in addressing critical social needs, for others, such events might appear unmeaningful and hamper one’s work engagement.
Leaders now face a tricky puzzle: how to come up with shared practices that foster the work community as a whole but allow for sufficient autonomy for each individual?
Sadly, there are no silver bullets for this. However, a fruitful starting point could be found from the paradox approach to management (e.g., Smith & Lewis, 2011; Lempiälä & Vanharanta, 2016). In a nutshell, the paradox approach’s key premise is that organizing includes complex, permanent tensions that cannot be resolved. One simply needs to learn to live with them.
One example of this is the paradox between the needs of an individual and the community. We all know that in a functional organization, people should pull together and compromise for the sake of the whole. Simultaneously, a functional organization also requires that its members identify with shared practices and can draw from one’s strengths. (ks. Smith & Lewis, 2011). Solving this inherent tension for good is impossible, and thus the only viable option is continuously balancing between the two.
In practice, this means that leaders accept that sometimes there are no perfect solutions. Instead, the critical thing is to strive for continuous improvement through finding and implementing good compromises while listening broadly to all the different views in one’s organization. With this approach, one can live in harmony with paradoxical tensions instead of being crushed in their everlasting pressure.
Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 381-403.
Lempiälä, T., & Vanharanta, O. (2018). Rethinking the control–freedom paradox in innovation: toward a multifaceted understanding of creative freedom. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 54(1), 62-87.