Sunday, August 23, 2020

COVID-19, Working from Home and Employee Happiness: An Interview with Dr. Craig Knight

Dr. Craig Knight
Background and Context

Covid-19 has not only disrupted our lives; it has upended them and turned it all upside down and inside out. The novel Coronavirus has touched us on so many levels: socially, culturally, personally, politically, and of course, professionally. I am fascinated and mesmerized by how a virus has managed to change our lifestyles to such a profound degree.

In its initial stages, I remember reading an article in which a social psychologist was musing about potential lifestyle and behavioral changes that this virus could bring about. He claimed that for change to become steady and permanent, and hence long-lasting, it depended on how long the virus would remain with us and how long these specific behaviors would remain in place. As we are often told, for behavior to set in, it needs to be kept up and reinforced for at least a month. At this level, we are past and beyond that benchmark and with no visible or marked end in sight.

My work, like that of countless others, has also been impacted by this virus. As a language instructor, I had to quickly accept and deal with the fact that face-to-face classes were suddenly and abruptly off the table. I was aware of that, but it hit me hard since this switch from a traditional to a virtual classroom not only happened overnight but also at the tail end of an already busy and engrossing winter semester. 

Our institution was scrambling, and with it, both students and instructors alike. It was not easy to adjust to the changing circumstances, to say the least, but I counted myself as lucky and blessed to still count on a job while many others in different fields and careers had not been as fortunate as me.

Those who already had a certain level of access to technology - or at least the opportunity to use and embrace it - had a somewhat easier time to make the switch and adjustment. In fact, Covid-19 could be responsible for heralding and ushering in a new era: the digital age. It may have been a long time in the making, but this virus could indeed be the necessary catalyst or the final straw that broke the traditional nine-to-five office-work lifestyle. Suddenly and out of sheer necessity, we have shifted from having 3% working from home and online to a staggering 70% of the workforce switching to the online world or being forced to do so.   

A few saw it coming from a long time ago. Benjamin Pring from Cognizant advises us to “be friends with the new trend” instead of fighting or resisting technological change as he himself had been living and working remotely for almost a quarter-century now. He calls it a superior lifestyle, one that brings with it cultural and operational changes and challenges, but it is at the same time the new reality that employers and employees need to accept and embrace. In fact, those who manage to adjust to this new trend, which seems to be for the long haul and here to stay, will have a better chance of surviving, professionally speaking.


The Interview with Dr. Knight

The best way is to not only embrace it but to optimize it by supporting and investing in the technological and human aspects of this new reality and by accepting the necessary changes and paradigm shifts that this would entail for companies. This was one of the various topics of conversation I had with Dr. Knight, with the main focus on how autonomy and strong networking and social interactions can help employees become both happier and more productive, a win-win situation for both management and the workforce. But before I get into the content of our interview, let me take the opportunity to briefly introduce Dr. Craig Knight to you.

Dr. Knight is affiliated with a psychological organizational consultancy firm with the amazing and catchy name of Identity Realization. I am in favor of both aspects of life, namely, of finding one’s identity and of realizing it, so I told him that it was indeed a great choice for a name. Dr. Knight added that if you can realize your identity in your space, then it is a good space indeed.

In fact, Dr. Knight combines his knowledge and expertise of two different-seeming fields and creates an interesting and highly relevant hybrid. He has experience in office design, but it has been combined with the psychological effects of design upon the employee and their well-being and their connection with productivity. Having the freedom to develop and arrange one’s own workspace - and for some, this is a new experience and a kind of revelation thanks to Covid-19 – can make employees up to 32% more productive in their respective field.

It will not only benefit workers and employees to have the best possible and most comfortable space to work in and from, but, more importantly, employers can better understand and realize the importance and relevance of the workspace and its environment. Previously, by this, I mean the era before COVID, Dr. Knight has shown us that keeping plants in one’s office space could increase productivity by about 16%. This is a simple, rather inexpensive, and relatively unobtrusive manner of boosting employee satisfaction and productivity, something that is not taken advantage of enough.

But one of the new situations that many find themselves in or that they are unexpectedly thrust into is the home office. Now in my case, I am glad to report that not only do I have a Bonsai tree that has been my companion for the past year or so, but I have also recently acquired a mini-water fountain. None of this was purchased with the intention and purpose of boosting my creativity, but I do not regret that decision in the least.

Not only has it improved my mood and motivational levels, but my creative input as evidenced on this blog has increased dramatically. A case in point is that I had the fortune to have three back-to-back interviews last week, and I am trying to keep up with all the writing to share with you the amazing insight and conversation I gleaned from all those conversations.

Yet how one adjusts to this new reality of work-life may depend to some degree whether you are a segmentor or an integrator. This was information I came privy to thanks to the work and research by Nancy Rothbard from Wharton. Essentially, segmentors like to separate their work from their private lives. They tend to cherish and protect their privacy, and they talk very little about their family or loved ones or even their hobbies and interests. They have a clear separation of workspace and the private sphere. You will rarely find pictures of partners or family members in their respective office- space.

On the other hand, there are also those who like to integrate the two spheres. They do not see a separation between one and the other. You will find pictures of their loved ones and family members as well as personal items in their office. They talk freely with colleagues about their personal lives and feel most comfortable blending the one with the other.

It would come as little surprise that the latter often thrive under these new conditions, while the segmentors have a hard time adjusting to this new reality. In fact, segmentors would have to recreate an office space that is as separate and devoid as possible of personal items. In some cases, it is recommended that they put up partitions, somewhat similar to the cubicles so that they can ensure and secure a clear demarcation line between professional and private life. Others might opt for renting their own office space or to buy what is known as mini-homes, small dwelling spaces, out of which to operate one’s own business and/or do one’s work from.

Although we may stipulate that some of these differences could be gender-based, with women falling more into the second while men topping the first category, according to Nancy Rothbard, the research does not necessarily prove or demonstrate this. There is a slightly higher preference for segmenting among women, but this difference is not statistically significant.

I find myself somewhere in-between on that spectrum. When I asked Dr. Knight about how he feels about his office space, he graciously gave me a view of his surroundings. The view onto green pastures outside was inspiring; the office itself in Dr. Knight’s own words, was “scruffy and disorganized” and it made him happy because it allegedly reflected his own personality. To a certain degree that is true in my case as well. I tend to be most comfortable in a slightly messy environment. It may be my natural state and habitat. In that sense, I may align with my gender and species and concord with Dr. Knight on the matter.

Although some will feel happier with their new working environment, it still depends on various factors and it does come with certain drawbacks. A factor that influences the employee’s happiness level is to what degree they feel autonomous and in control of the environment. In the home space, they have a certain say about their work environment, which they may or may not lack in their office space depending on how much freedom their employers give or assign to them. 

But control and say go deeper than that. If an employee is involved to an extent in the decision-making process or the work that they are doing, then they will feel more engaged and more content, and less stressed. Yet in the traditional perception of a boss/employee relationship, the former gives the orders and the latter obeys them and follows through with them. This was based, among others, on Frederick Taylor’s idea of productivity where one would specialize in certain activities and the superiors would oversee the work and ensure that productivity is at its peak.

In this traditional view of management, knowledge and expertise are embodied by and lie within the managers who think or assume that it is their right to control other people’s lives, when in reality this is not and should not be the case. As a result of this view, managers believe that employees need and ought to be monitored and to be under surveillance at all times, but this has no scientific support or correlation with productivity, regardless of field or discipline.

In fact, it has the opposite and unwanted effect of undermining employee’s satisfaction. The new perception seems to be moving away from a hierarchy and towards what is sometimes referred to as a wirearchy. In this new form of work, it is best to avoid micro-management, but rather to work as a team. There could be immediate supervisors attached to smaller working units who would work as guides and facilitators, or even coaches, to ensure that the working conditions have been optimized for the employee.

Another way to ensure that there is employee satisfaction is to tap into the potentials and capacities of the individual worker. Simply put, ideally one should give the employee the tasks they are most interested in and most likely also best at. If you are good with statistics and numbers, then the spreadsheet should be all yours, while your colleague can work on other aspects and demands of the job. Figuring out the strengths and then investing in them and hence maximizing and utilizing them would lead not only to higher productivity but also lead to higher employee retention.

Dr. Knight states that managers should not tell their employees what to do but should provide resources by asking their employees how they can be of assistance to them and how they can help them. Managers ought to stop viewing and treating employees like children but rather give them what they need to get the job done. This kind of mind-shift and realization may come about due to the new working environment and conditions brought about by Covid-19.

However, there are still many who are reluctant to accept these new trends and prefer the one person at the top paradigm, that is, the traditional hierarchical structure we are accustomed to. Why is that so, I asked Dr. Knight, and he was himself somewhat baffled that many are still following a pattern that is counterproductive to the company and that will undermine and even harm and impede its success. He claimed that the situation might a bit better in the United States, but that Britain tends to be notoriously badly managed in that regard.

Yet all of this has been brought to the forefront thanks to COVID, while many employers will have to face these sets of challenges as well as opportunities. The status quo will be something of the past. The office may not be dead, but it will look very different now that we have had a taste of the inherent and previously latent potentials of technology. The office must and most likely will change as a result.

We often assume that the old ways of doing things were superior, but that may be true only in certain aspects. Dr. Knight underscores that it is most important for human beings to not only talk and socialize over Zoom but to have the opportunity of physical proximity and contact. For instance, Zoom is empowering in many ways and facilitates contact and communication between people across the world, and it is a good substitute for communication, but it is not and cannot be an alternative to face-to-face interaction and cannot possibly replace that.

Social and physical interaction are crucial and important for our health and emotional well-being. We need to have social networks with friends, relatives as well as co-workers and physical contact and proximity would continue to be necessary and of great importance.

Moreover, Dr. Knight finds the term “social distancing” to be dreadful; it should be called physical distancing, and it should only be a temporary means. As it took us quite a while to adjust to the new conditions, it would also take time for us to re-adjust to going back to the normal way of life once the pandemic is finally behind us. But social and physical face-to-face interaction should and must be part and parcel of our life again.

I do miss working closely with my colleagues and running into them as well as students in the hallway. I miss having a brief chat by the water fountain or over a cup of coffee. Zoom may work as a proxy to a certain degree, but it simply cannot replace the personal and human connection that we used to have and that we need. Nonetheless, there are other aspects of the old ways of working that I for one shall not miss.

One of them is the commute. Working from home has eliminated the burden and cost of time and money. I can be at my workplace within seconds, where it used to take me about an hour, and I am aware I should consider myself fortunate in that aspect since many people had to spend even more time in busy traffic and traffic jams.

However, for some, that commute represented an opportunity to clear one’s head and prepare for the day ahead. It signified a clear ritual transition from home to the workplace and back. That transition may be missing or lacking when your home is one with your office. For those who prefer the clear break (and they would for the most part be segregators), there are different ways to achieve this. For instance, one can create their own home office space and limit that location to work-related matters only.

Whenever that is not possible or feasible (my own amount of space in the apartment is quite limited), there is another option, namely creating your own cubicle. This may sound strange and crazy and even silly, but it can be easily done by creating cardboard walls around oneself to denote and copy the office space.

But some may not be satisfied with working at home because they see work either as an escape or refuge. It is a place that is away from the family, a kind of physical and psychological break from all that is going on at home. Being with the family can be stressful, but that again depends both on oneself and on one’s family. If you love and appreciate their presence and company, you would embrace and cherish these new opportunities of working from home.

If you see your family as a burden or do not enjoy being with them, then you cannot wait to go back to the pre-COVID lifestyle with its defined space and delineated timeframe. I for one do not miss the old lifestyle and to be physically, mentally, and emotionally confined and constricted to set schedules. I do not mind routine per se, but the obligation to have to do something at a specific hour creates and implies a certain amount of stress.

Nonetheless, it is the physical contact that I would miss, that is, being there in person with my students and my colleagues. Perhaps hybrids will become the new norm; otherwise, we would need to ensure regular social events and get-togethers to promote comradeship and to foster team spirit and a sense of and belonging to the community. But this can only occur once this virus has been completely tamed and defeated and no longer poses significant threats to our health and well-being.

For my full-length interview on YouTube with global thought leader and founder of Identity Realization Dr. Craig Knight, please click here

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast


Special thanks to Dr. Craig Knight for his insightful and delightful interview as well as Nancy Thompson from Vorticom, Inc. for arranging it and making it possible! 

I also want to thank the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation for their outstanding Path Forward series, especially its July 30, 2020 program entitled Covid-19 and The Future of Work in which the US Chamber’s President Suzanne Clark interviewed Benjamin Pring, Jim Harter, and Nancy Rothbard.


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