The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rethink of the meaning and value of “togetherness” in the workplace, and poses the question ‘How do we cultivate ethics whilst working remotely?’
Thoughts revert to Bauman’s 1995 ethics book, “Life in Fragments” (Oxford: Blackwell, ISBN 0–631–19267–0), as the normative office culture of everyone working onsite has atomised into employees scattered offsite working from home. While this has remedied the stresses of traveling for many fatigued commuters, the “togetherness” of watercooler chats, coffee breaks, and project meetings has been replaced with a combination of video calls, emails, and Slack messages (“e-fragments of worklife”). This is the new workplace of “mobile togetherness”– “momentary closeness and instant parting” (Bauman, p.44). For corporate executives, managing the fragments can be a daunting task with risks such as micromanagement, detachment, and depersonalisation.
Having relied on the visuals of onsite working, the fragmentation of mobile togetherness can lead to detachment and depersonalisation when staff are “out of site/sight’” and instead avatars of their ‘former’ selves. For some managers, being physically present with staff has been comforting because of “seeing” the person linked to the “performance”. An invisible performer can be uncomfortable for some executives, fearing product or service outputs might also dim. Reacting with micromanagement could send a message of lack of trust – better is focused mentoring and work tools that facilitate confidence and efficiency. The latter is vital as studies show that some tend to work more in the work-from-home setting (for many reasons including a perceived need to prove they are working, the inability to manage time effectively, fear of failure) (David and Green, 2020 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-23/working-from-home-in-covid-era-means-three-more-hours-on-the-job).
A manager’s task of operationalising the company’s mission and vision and cultivating ethical behaviour is no easy feat when the staff is out of sight. The setting is a great reminder, however, of our other valuable senses that should enhance: touch, hearing, smell, taste.
Touch: Send your staff a personalised written note (your handwriting, not your PA’s) giving them a compliment, a word of encouragement, and mentoring for 2021.
Hearing: Listen to the pulse of your staff – morale is an audible feature of the company. What are they saying individually and collectively? Offline does not mean closed communication channels. Consider conducting an anonymous survey to identify problem areas that need attention or set up an e-suggestion box. Also, “don’t shoot the messenger.” Their content could be value-added for you or the company (Bramstedt 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32927977/).
Smell: Is something “off” in the data/spreadsheets/reports? Is it an honest mistake or fraud? Sniff it out and address it. Ensure proper training and corrective action, as well as transparency.
Taste: Science informs us that things that are toxic often taste bad or leave a residue or precipitate. Is your workplace satisfying or hard to swallow? Does the staff say, “I’d like another portion” [good retention] or do they spit it out [staff turnover]? Is your company a toxic kitchen? Use annual performance reviews and exit interviews to identify gaps, bottlenecks, and roadblocks – these are great opportunities for corporate quality improvement.
While the e-fragments of pandemic worklife can make management less visible, it is important to remember that ethical corporate leadership is vital to an ethical corporate culture. It is the leaders which set the boundary conditions for this ethical culture by way of the mission, vision, codes, policies, and procedures. Leaders often write these documents but more importantly, they are the people supposed to model them as well. When the leadership has ethical and trustworthy behaviour, then the staff (and customers) can trust them (and the company). The pandemic won’t blind corporate behaviour as this remains visible and must show integrity at all times.