Remote working, or telework, has become much more popular in recent years. In a normal telework arrangement, employees split their work time between working from the office and working from home. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way in which employees now telework. Under normal circumstances, employees who telework have access to the organization’s resources at the physical office location. In light of COVID-19, many organizations have discouraged or even forbidden non-essential employees from physically reporting to work. This dramatic shift has led to 65% of employees teleworking, compared to only 11% prior to COVID-19.
To further complicate matters, COVID-19 has also created new and unfamiliar problems that disrupt employee work roles. These COVID-19 setbacks (or “C19 setbacks”) include disruptions and inhibitions arising from COVID-19, which may include lockdown regulations, impact on business operations, preparation for businesses reopening after lockdown, and novel social distancing rules. Challenges that workers face in response to C19 setbacks may have undesirable effects on telework employees.
SETBACKS AND WORK WITHDRAWAL
New research (Chong et al., 2020) examines how C19 setbacks may affect employee withdrawal from work. Work withdrawal is characterized by attempts to escape the stress of work. Examples of work withdrawal include absence from work, late arrival, and taking undeserved breaks. The researchers proposed that C19 setbacks would be related to higher levels of work withdrawal. They argue that the novelty of C19 setbacks requires employees to deal with unforeseen problems, learn new ways of operations, and adapt to updated rules.
Further, C19 task setbacks may also reinforce the prevalence of the ongoing pandemic. The authors argue that having to deal with the ongoing stress of the pandemic along with having to process the new expectations associated with C19 setbacks is a draining and emotionally exhausting experience that workers go through each day. This increase in emotional exhaustion at the end of the day may increase work withdrawal the next day. This may occur because telework involves less direct supervision from employers. The researchers argued that teleworkers have more opportunity to engage in work withdrawal and may do so in order to have a temporary break from C19 task setbacks and to replenish energy and motivation.
WORKING ALONE VERSUS WORKING WITH OTHERS
This proposed increase in emotional exhaustion and work withdrawal may be worse in some circumstances compared to others. The researchers also argued that workers who must work interdependently with other people may experience greater emotional exhaustion compared to those who work in isolation. Employees who must rely on other workers to complete their tasks may have a harder time doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because they have to expend greater time, effort, and resources coordinating their efforts towards achieving their work goals compared to those who work in isolation. This may lead to greater emotional exhaustion at the end of the day for those working interdependently.
LEVEL OF ORGANIZATIONAL SUPPORT
The perceived level of organizational support may also be a factor in how much an employee withdraws from work the next day. If workers perceive that their organization is low in telework support (i.e. no IT support, little timely information, limited work materials, little decision-making authority) they may feel isolated and unable to rely on the organization to help them achieve their work goals. The researchers proposed that employees who feel lower organizational telework support will be more withdrawn from work the next day.
RESULTS OF THE STUDY
To test their hypotheses, the researchers surveyed 120 participants in Singapore daily for two weeks during their country’s COVID-19 lockdown. Results from their analyses found support for all proposed hypotheses. This suggests that higher C19 task setbacks are related to higher withdrawal from work the next day because employees feel more emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. This effect was particularly worse for telework employees who have higher task interdependence and perceive their organization to provide lower telework task support.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This study highlights the importance of supporting telework employees, especially through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations can take steps such as streamlining timely communication, offering IT support, and offering resources to employees who may be limited due to restricted office access. Further, organizations can work to implement communication software, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, in order to help employees with interdependent tasks communicate with one another in a timely manner.
Chong, S., Huang, Y., & Chang, C.-H. (D.). (2020). Supporting interdependent telework employees: A moderated-mediation model linking daily COVID-19 task setbacks to next-day work withdrawal. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(12), 1408-1422.