Bryan Sappington

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

I keep telling myself that eventually this pandemic will end and my future grandkids will ask me about it for an assignment at school.

I can remember asking my great-grandma about her experience during the Great Depression and my grandparents about World War II and the Cold War. As they spoke, I was struck by how calm they seemed to be! After all, we had just been taught that these were devastating periods of our history full of pain and suffering. But time had numbed their emotional connection with the events themselves. Their stories didn’t linger so much on the conflict they faced or the hardships they experienced, but about how their lives changed during and after each crisis.

When teaching business students and trying to prepare them for change and uncertainty in the future, instead of pretending to have all of the answers, I prefer to ask deeper, more thought-provoking questions leading them down the path of self-discovery. In this case, how will life be different on the other side of this crisis? More specifically through the lens of Organizational Behavior, how will the way we work and the relationship we have with our employers be different than it was in 2019?

It seems certain that one enduring legacy from our COVID-19 experiences will be an increase in employees working from home. While some businesses adopted a virtual structure early, most businesses have been reluctant to allow staff to work remotely, citing fears relating to loss of productivity and motivation, technological limitations, logistical considerations, etc. Yet as movement and social interaction became more and more restricted, schools moved to virtual learning models forcing parents to stay home, physical storefronts were required to temporarily close, and businesses were forced to quickly adapt, much of the workforce became virtual. In fact, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom found in June that the number of employees working remotely were nearly double those who were working on site.

In spite of the abrupt transition and virus-related logistical complications, we have seen that working from home can be a viable option and an opportunity that many hope will continue to be afforded to them in some way. Additionally, many employers have found that they can still operate with a virtual or semi-virtual organizational structure and realize significant cost savings from a more remote workforce.

These benefits do not come without significant challenges for both employee and employer. In personal conversations with others working virtually, one of the most common complaints was a desire to be around other adults and have some fulfilling social interaction outside of the home. So, if we are going to see a large percentage of the population continue to work remotely, how will this impact our satisfaction with work? How will managers need to change to help motivate a socially distant staff?

One of my favorite theories of motivation has always been Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. During the pandemic, we have concentrated much of our focus on the lower level needs for safety and security. But as we move past this crisis and return to our “new normal,” we’ll likely be placing more of our efforts satisfying our social and belonging needs in the middle two levels. To what degree will we seek to meet these through our interactions at work? We also need to recognize that while we may all have the same needs, our individual differences lead us to prioritize them in different ways. Individual conflict handling styles, internal vs. external locus of control, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, introversion vs. extroversion and other personality traits could all impact our level of satisfaction while working from home.

So, are we all really ready to spend more time working from home? I would argue that not everyone will thrive in a remote working environment and that we need to discover more about ourselves while also better communicating our needs to management. When evaluating future work-from-home options, employers will need to look beyond just the duties of a position, but also the specific person filling that role. We will have to work together to find the best fit moving forward. We know there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership so managers will need to spend more time discovering what motivates and fulfills the needs of each individual while also creating opportunities for teams to establish trust and interact in more meaningful ways.

When reflecting upon the pandemic in the distant future, I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren that life was better after than it was before, that our workplace became more flexible, that our employers became more in-tune with the needs of each individual. What part will you play?

Bryan Sappington teaches Organizational Behavior and Foundations courses as adjunct faculty member with Columbia College. As Academic Advising Coordinator in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business, he advises business students, assists them in navigating their degree requirements and provides guidance on important aspects of their program. He holds an MBA from Columbia College.