illustration for how the pandemic affected the workplace

How the Pandemic Affected Workers and the Workplace

Liuba Belkin’s research gives insight into managing the ‘new normal.’

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Suddenly forced to teach her college courses online when COVID-19 hit, Liuba Belkin was genuinely curious about the impact of the pandemic on a colleague’s work day, given that the woman’s 9-to-5 job as an administrative assistant had previously required her to be on campus each day. Now that her colleague could work remotely, how was she structuring her day?

Her colleague’s answer intrigued her. With everyone remote, the woman told Belkin, other colleagues expected her to be online almost 24/7, blurring work and home responsibilities. 

Belkin contemplated her colleague’s answer. Additionally, she herself was feeling somewhat isolated at home, despite being around family. On deeper reflection, she recognized a need for research into the potential impact of the pandemic on workers across jobs and professions. 

“The world is changing,” says Belkin, associate professor and director of the management program at Lehigh. “I think COVID was a so-called serendipitous event, because the technology was there. If COVID had happened 10-15 years ago, we wouldn't have had Zoom. I'm not really sure what we would have done. …  But the technology was there, and when [the pandemic] happened, it was force-shift to remote work that allowed many office workers to continue to work efficiently at home.”

Choosing to put other research on hold to explore the new phenomena, Belkin subsequently conducted studies with William J. Becker of Virginia Tech, Sarah E. Tuskey of Miami Dade College and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University. Their work has provided insight into how human resources professionals can manage the “new normal” of remote work, as well as how employers can improve their responses to other cataclysmic events. 

“As managers and HR professionals, we need to understand and adapt to the desires and needs of employees,” Belkin says. She cautioned, however, “There is no one-size-fits-all kind of solution because not everyone wants to be completely remote.”

Since the widespread shift to remote work in March 2020 was abrupt and mandatory, many human resources departments did not have policies in place to govern remote work. In addition, the researchers noted, the uncertainty around the length, severity and economic impact of the pandemic increased the difficulty in managing employees in the new environment and exacerbated a unique feature of the crisis–the degree of isolation that people felt in social distancing and working remotely.

illustration  for the impact of the pandemic on the workplace

“As such, the COVID-19 pandemic directly impacted two basic human needs: the need for control/autonomy and the need for belongingness,” wrote Belkin and her colleagues in “Surviving remotely: How job control and loneliness during a forced shift to remote work impacted employee work behaviors and well-being.” “Since individuals vary in the degree to which they prioritize these needs, employees are likely to perceive and cope differently with the challenges to the need fulfillment brought on by the forced shift to remote work.”

The study appeared online in 2022 in Human Resource Management.

Belkin and her colleagues each recruited working adults in their networks and in the alumni networks of their respective universities at the onset of the pandemic, when many states issued stay-at-home orders. Participants completed an initial survey, then a second survey two weeks later. Most worked in finance, information technology and consumer products industries. 

The researchers looked at remote work through the lens of self-determination theory, which posits that individuals are motivated and perform optimally when their basic psychological needs (for autonomy, competence and belongingness) are fulfilled. They also integrated other theoretical perspectives in linking employee perceived job autonomy and work-related loneliness to emotional exhaustion and work-life balance, as well as to insomnia, depression and minor counterproductive work behaviors such as tardiness.

Early on, Belkin says, some managers were so concerned that their remote employees would slack off and productivity would suffer that they started closely monitoring them. “But it turned out that because they were in remote mode, a lot of times employees went above and beyond and worked way more–in part because they had the flexibility to structure their own work … Fast forward two years. Everyone realizes that [a remote workforce] is not that scary.”

The researchers found that the majority of participants preferred to continue to have some flexibility in their schedules–55% indicated they’d like to work one-to-two days a week from home, while 94% indicated they’d like to work at least one day a week from home. Few said they wanted to be completely remote. “So the idea that everyone now will never want to be in the office, that's not true,” Belkin says.  

With remote work likely to persist, there are implications for the workplace, Belkin says. If managers allow employees to work remotely at least one day a week and maybe more, that would provide flexibility, she says. “And when people have the ability to structure their work week the way they want more or less, they're more productive, because happy people are more productive. When people are stressed, they don't produce well, and then they get sick and take leave days or leave the job. All of this also means higher overall costs for the organizations.”

As managers and HR professionals, we need to understand and adapt to the desires and needs of employees.

Liuba Belkin

A key finding was that remote employees who perceived they had greater job control–for example, in deciding what hours in the day to accomplish their work–felt a higher work-life balance. 

However, Belkin says, not all remote employees benefited from greater job control, particularly those who preferred to segment their work lives and personal lives. That suggests, the researchers said, that human resources departments work with employees to adopt remote work policies that balance organizational goals and employee preferences. Organizations also can help employees by training them in time management and in setting boundaries.

The researchers also found that some remote employees struggled with feelings of work-related loneliness and felt more exhausted. Belkin and her colleagues suggest that organizations make a concerted effort to help employees feel like they belong. For example, they wrote, organizations can create virtual spaces for more personal connections, such as coffee breaks online, rather than only bringing employees together for required work activities. 

“When people are happier, when they experience less loneliness, when they feel that they have this greater control of their work schedule, they’re less exhausted, they have greater perceptions of work and family balance, and they’re less likely to engage in those counterproductive work behaviors that our HR professionals and our managers don't want to see because they impede productivity,” Belkin says.

“If you give people the freedom to choose and you maintain those connections, there will be better productivity from your employees. And when people are not depressed, when people are sleeping well–wellbeing also translates to performance–it's all economic benefits to organizations and they’re more successful.”

Additional Studies

Belkin also conducted extensive research into other areas of human behavior in work and social settings under COVID-19. In a study titled “Beliefs in government benevolence can promote individuals' compliance with government-issued guidelines: The role of positive affect and general construal level,” Belkin and her colleague Dejun Tony Kong of the University of Colorado Boulder examined why some individuals initially complied with the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing face coverings, to a greater extent than others. 

The study, published in 2021 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, showed that individuals’ beliefs in the federal government's benevolence played a strong role in their compliance with CDC guidelines, but only among those with high construal levels, a cognitive processing mode that is associated with more abstract and broader thinking.

In another study published in 2021 in the Journal of Business Ethics, “You Don’t Care for Me, So What’s the Point for Me to Care for Your Business?,” Belkin and Kong examined the interpersonal relationships between employees and employers amid the pandemic. 

In measuring ‘felt neglect,’ the researchers found that employees expected their leaders to care for them in times of crisis, and if they didn’t, both the employees’ wellbeing and organizational functioning were negatively impacted, Belkin says. Employees who felt neglected assigned less meaning to their work, and thus, were less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors, such as helping colleagues and customers or volunteering for extra tasks–behavior that are especially important for a company’s successful functioning and survival during a crisis.

An additional study published in 2021 in the Journal of Positive Psychology titled “Supervisor companionate love expression and elicited subordinate gratitude as moral-emotional facilitators of voice amid COVID-19,” Belkin and Kong examined the impact of supervisors’ companionate love on their employees during the pandemic. The researchers found that an expression of companionate love, characterized by strong feelings of affection and intimacy, can improve employees’ ability to adapt. That, they wrote, can help organizations to be more resilient during adversity and help employees thrive.

___________

Luiba Belkin’s primary research interests focus on affect and emotions in organizational settings and the role of emotions in negotiations, trust relationships and managerial practices.  She holds the Thomas J. Campbell ‘80 Professorship, and she received her MBA and her Ph.D. from Rutgers University.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

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