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The world of work redefined

Meet Concordians thinking outside of the cubicle
April 18, 2023
By Damon van der Linde, BA 08

Photo: Shutterstock

Eliza Baynes, BA 08, left her office job hoping to never be a full-time employee again. Dissatisfied with seemingly endless administrative tasks, emails and meetings, she yearned to be a professional writer working on her own terms.

“I wondered if I was the only person who felt the way I did,” she says. “Then the pandemic hit and everybody started thinking about work differently.”

COVID-19 changed everything, of course, relocating office workers from cubicles to kitchen tables. Those who couldn’t stay home — from critical-response workers to manufacturing labourers — shouldered an immense burden. Others found themselves laid off and forced to find new ways to make a living.

Working remotely saved Baynes an hour of commuting time, but it also meant an additional hour of work from her home office. Unhappy and unable to find a sustainable balance, she quit her job in March 2022.

Much of what led Baynes to imagine a life beyond the traditional nine-to-five started long before COVID-19 — and she’s far from alone in that regard. In response to supply and demand, technological advancements, demographic changes and shifting societal values, the world of work is rapidly evolving.

‘COVID’S silver lining’

Eliza Baynes, BA 08

Like Baynes, many workers have — by choice or by necessity — stepped away from the security of full-time employment and become part of the gig economy.

“COVID’s silver lining is that it opened people’s minds about the definition of ‘work’ and led to a better understanding of gig labour,” says Steve Granger, assistant professor in the Department of Management, whose research at the John Molson School of Business takes a holistic look at how adversity is experienced on the job.

Although food-delivery apps often come to mind, the gig economy is primarily made up of knowledge workers, such as editors and software programmers. Granger notes that these remote jobs come with many positive attributes — a sense of autonomy chief among them, which is a key predictor of job satisfaction.

The constant need to hunt for the next assignment can be stressful, however.

“It’s a subtle anxiety that doesn’t afflict traditional workers,” says Granger, who is part of an international project called The Gig Work Life.

“The project is essentially a space to further the science and evidence around the experiences of gig workers and help them work in more sustainable and effective ways,” he adds.

Enabled by technology and driven by the fading promises of late-stage capitalism, the shift towards more autonomous remote work was accelerated by the pandemic. For some, this was a welcome change, eliminating stressful commutes and allowing for more independence. For others, however, the change blurred personal and professional boundaries and increased feelings of isolation.

Tracy Hecht

Pre-pandemic, working from home was typically a reward offered to high performers, notes Tracy Hecht, associate professor in the Department of Management, whose research explores the work-life interface.

“Those few people benefited from a lot of control over what they were doing,” she says. “If they were fully working at home, they learned how to create and maintain boundaries.”

That adjustment didn’t come as easily for many forced home during the pandemic. School closures put employees with young children in a tough spot, while workers without families at home faced long stretches with little to no human contact.

“Remote work has definitely not come with the same benefits and difficulties for everyone,” says Hecht.

As with mental health, physical health was also affected by the pandemic. Risks of catching the virus aside, daily fitness routines were upended, whether they consisted of cycling to the office or squeezing in a workout at lunchtime.

“Thriving work environments come from healthy and happy employees, and movement is an important part of that,” says Christina Della Rocca, BA 97, a workplace wellness specialist and founder of Peak Santé. To help cope with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, Della Rocca creates holistic programs customized for the unique needs and wants of organizations and their employees.

“Workplace wellness is more than talking about nutrition for an hour or offering a boot-camp class,” she says. “It goes beyond perks for employees and must be embraced as part of the culture.”

Discrimination in the workplace

Workplace wellness also includes meaningful efforts to address shortcomings around diversity, equity and inclusion. After decades of inaction, many institutions and organizations are implementing policies that grapple with these issues.

Karine Bah Tahé, BComm 11

As CEO of a workplace education company called Blue Level, Karine Bah Tahé, BComm 11, develops training strategies to increase diversity, eliminate discrimination and counter non-inclusive practices.

During the pandemic, Bah Tahé notes, only three per cent of workers who identified as Black in the United States expressed an interest in returning to the office on a full-time basis. The number for their white colleagues was 21 per cent.

“That discrepancy could imply that working from home is more appealing for many because it mitigates microaggressions and feelings of exclusion,” she observes. Bah Tahé’s own experiences with racism and misogynoir — prejudice directed towards Black women — prompted her to start Blue Level in 2018 after a career in business and journalism.

Beyond generalized training designed to target discrimination, her company develops accessible and ultraspecific e-learning platforms, sometimes for organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees. Blue Level is also increasingly looking at ways to address more insidious biases that occur across a range of workplaces, from hospitals to accounting firms.

“Discrimination can greatly impact the quality of patient care,” says Bah Tahé. “It can also stunt career advancement due to a lack of access to promotions and mentorship opportunities.”

Back to the office? 

Post COVID-19, employers and employees are still figuring out what a “return to normal” means.

For many who enjoyed the autonomy of working from home, spending 40 hours a week in an office is now unimaginable. A hybrid model has been adopted by many organizations as a compromise.

Meanwhile, low unemployment has left HR departments scrambling to find locally based talent, prompting searches farther afield. Hires that result from those searches can struggle to find their footing.

“If they’re not on-site, they might worry, rightly or wrongly, that they’ll be passed over for promotions,” says Hecht. “They can risk being ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Hecht says questions are also being raised about whether on-site staff should be better compensated. Assembly-line workers can’t luxuriate in the digital-nomad lifestyle, after all.

“People care about fairness, so how do organizations navigate this?” she asks. “I think there are a lot of challenges that organizations will face before they find an equilibrium.”

Hecht also notes the difficulty in predicting where organizations will land in the balance between on-site work and remote work. Are Elon Musk’s “return to the office or quit” directives at Tesla and Twitter a fringe outlier, or a harbinger of what’s to come?

“If the pendulum swings the other way and a recession pushes unemployment back up, organizations may tell employees to come back to the office, or find employees who will,” she remarks, adding that organizations need to be nimble.

“Flextime is a tried-and-true way to help people achieve work-life balance,” she observes. “We know that giving people control over their schedules is a net positive.”

The jury is out on whether remote work is truly a recipe for long-term success. Some research suggests productive employees perform well no matter where they work. The opposite is likely true as well. There is some irony, too, in the fact that remote work has, in many cases, led to more collaboration than ever before.

“Work has become a lot more relational, and people are indeed interacting more,” agrees Gary Johns, distinguished professor emeritus and Honorary Research Chair of Management at John Molson. “Many creative endeavours now depend on teams, either for ideas or because of the sheer scope of the work. There is less focus on individual employees and their performance and a lot more interest in the collective.”

‘Show care and compassion’

Unprecedented changes, from the pandemic to rapid technological progress, have destabilized employees across the organizational chart. But middle and senior managers in this current era of remote work — deprived of the ability to make the rounds from cubicle to cubicle — have been uniquely challenged. How do you assess morale and productivity when everyone is at home?

Kathleen Boies

“If you’re a leader who’s only comfortable with micromanagement, you’ll be very uncomfortable in a remote-work situation,” says Kathleen Boies, professor in the Department of Management and Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development. “Remote work is here to stay.”

Measures deployed by organizations to keep tabs on employees at home can range from the innocuous — regular Zoom check-ins — to the draconian — software that measures keystrokes and monitors internet browsing. The effect on morale can sometimes hasten the very result management is tasked to avoid.

Ultimately, Boies says, the focus should be on outcomes and deliverables. “The key to achieving optimal results is to show care and compassion for your employees, rather than ensuring they punch their cards on time,” she says. “A relationship-based approach to leadership works — supervising time spent on tasks doesn’t. One effect of the pandemic has been to accelerate awareness of this fact.”

Managers should make an effort to have frequent one-on-one contact with employees, adds Boies, and be responsive to individual needs. “There is nothing like direct contact with somebody to get a pulse of a situation,” she says. “A leader can’t be on autopilot.”

Boies says the elements of effective leadership have always been the same. It comes down to empathy.

“Skilled leaders read their environment and their people and adjust their behaviour accordingly,” she says. “When you’re the pivot point in times of upheaval, leadership fatigue can of course set in. That makes it more difficult to exercise compassion and manage the emotions of others, not to mention your own.” This is especially prevalent in health care. Boies is co-investigator of a program helping nurse managers in hospitals across Quebec and Ontario cope with the stresses of their demanding jobs.

Launched after the onset of the pandemic, the Strengths-Based Nursing and Healthcare Leadership program incorporates training and mentorship as potential mechanisms to mitigate burnout. Results suggest that this guidance helped participants contend with challenges and improved workplace satisfaction.

“We have found that activities geared towards self-improvement provided social supports that can act as a buffer to maintaining stress levels,” says Boies. “For leaders in nursing and health care, self-care and continuing to think about ways to improve and invest in leadership behaviours can be helpful in difficult times.”

Leaders across all types of organizations are increasingly looking for support in navigating complex situations, managing stress and achieving their goals. One avenue for this is working with a coach, who can either be a trained employee or an external consultant.

“Coaching is not therapy nor telling a person what to do,” says Madeleine Mcbrearty, BA 84, MA 89, MA 03, PhD 10, professional certified coach and co-founder of Concordia’s Professional Goal-Centric Certified Coach (PGCC) program. “It’s about going on a journey to find solutions. If a leader enhances their approach, it will impact workplace wellness for everyone.”

An uncertain future

The world of work changed rapidly in March of 2020. What will it look like in 2025 and beyond? From a research standpoint, the fallout of the pandemic is still too recent to provide any conclusive forecasts.

“There are definitely more questions than answers at this point,” says Hecht.

Eliza Baynes is now a freelance writer. She chooses assignments at her leisure, sets her own schedule and has more time for passion projects and loved ones.

There are sacrifices, she acknowledges, from less financial stability to the lack of benefits and security that come with a traditional, full-time job.

“I would not recommend this lifestyle to just anyone,” says Baynes. “What I would recommend is that we all rethink how we work.”

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