APS Member/Author: Adam Grant
IN 1993 THE management guru Peter Drucker argued that “commuting to office work is obsolete.” As of last year, his vision hadn’t quite come true: nearly half of global companies in one survey still prohibited remote working. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly millions of people started doing their jobs from home. Work will never be the same.
Yet the changes to where we work are only a small part of the story. The experiences from past recessions and crises suggest that covid-19 is likely to transform three features of our work lives: job satisfaction, ethical leadership and trust.
Start with our attitudes towards work. It turns out that the higher the unemployment rate when we enter the workforce, the more satisfied we end up being with our jobs—even ten to 15 years later, according to multiple studies. This is true even after accounting for income, industry, occupation and experience. Why? Having begun our careers during a recession, we are grateful to have a job at all.
That sense of appreciation will not just be felt by students graduating this year. Millions of people have lost their jobs and countless more have taken pay cuts or furloughs. Even those fortunate enough to have a secure job may be more thankful for aspects of work that were once taken for granted. One is having a place to go without toddlers raiding our Zoom calls. Another is interaction with colleagues. Even a sad desk lunch is nicer when we no longer live in fear of infection from take-away meals.
Heightened gratitude is good news for job satisfaction but potentially bad news for job quality. It could lead bosses to take advantage of those willing to tolerate low pay, poor conditions and so-called “bullshit jobs” (ie, work without actual purpose). It is true that some people will find their work imbued with new meaning. From grocery shops to Lysol factories, people see how much worse-off communities would be without them. But that sense of purpose can come at a cost: studies of zookeepers show that those who see their work as a calling are more willing to sacrifice money, time and comfort. People who love their jobs often pay a “passion tax”.
The behaviour of managers points to a second trend: how leadership will change. During times of stress, humans often revert to their basic instincts. Amid the crises, we’ve seen some executives forgo lucrative pay. But we’ve also seen spectacular fails—notably at the electric-scooter company Bird, where more than 400 employees had signed-in for a “covid-19 update” videoconference, only to hear a disembodied voice announce that they were being let go.
Many companies dumped their employees in a nanosecond. When these firms want to hire again, they’re likely to have a hard time—and not just in attracting talent. Firms that are quick to slash jobs tend to perform worse than those that find alternatives such as pay cuts. Yes, layoffs reduce costs, but they also hurt productivity and innovation as people with valuable skills are sent packing. Those who remain are distracted by survivor’s guilt, anxiety and searching for more secure jobs.
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