Virtual strain?

Zoe Sanderson (University of Bristol) reports from the EAWOP online conference.

This month around 2000 delegates were supposed to be in Glasgow for the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology’s (EAWOP) biennial conference. Of course, the pandemic forced the postponement of the full in-person event to 11-14 January 2022, so to keep us connected until then EAWOP and the British Psychological Society created a one-day online conference. Entitled Virtual Strain: Working Life During the Covid Pandemic, the event covered three topical themes: how the pandemic has affected the organisation of work, the mental health of people at work, and work-life balance.  

In his opening remarks, EAWOP President Professor Frederik Anseel suggested that the last year has been ‘the worst of times and the best of times’. Covid-19 has caused illness and loss, isolation, disruption in our personal and professional spheres, and unparalleled challenges for relationally-based organisations like EAWOP. But the pandemic has also prompted a surge of new ideas about work-life balance, leadership, teamwork, work centrality and change: ‘it’s a great time to be a work and organizational psychologist because our insights have never been more relevant’.

In the first keynote speech, Professor Sharon Parker (Curtin University, Australia) explored how the organisation of work – tasks, activities, relationships, responsibilities etc – has shifted as remote work has become more common. Parker argued that well-designed work is characterised by being stimulating, having clarity about tasks and feedback, allowing autonomy, enabling relationships, and making tolerable demands of the worker. The great benefit of working remotely for most workers is greater autonomy or agency, but this can be offset by the feeling that they should be available at all times or the over-zealous monitoring of managers. Conversely, shared workspaces nurture relationships. Figuring out how to preserve the autonomy-relationship balance will be a key part of designing work well in the post-pandemic world.

Within this theme, practitioner and researcher Dr Lisette Engelen (Engelen2 Workplace Strategy, Radboud University, and Karolinska University Hospital, Sweden) shared lessons from supporting hospitals to deliver hybrid face-to-face and online treatment. She described the importance of bringing together IT, facilities, and HR functions to prepare a good working environment for healthcare staff and the challenges and benefits of ‘swarming’: temporarily convening multidisciplinary and multi-level teams to meet new high-priority needs, such as delivering Covid treatment.

Later, Professor Hannes Zacher (Leipzig University, Germany) highlighted some of the evidence-based guidance psychologists have generated to support the health and wellbeing of employees during the pandemic. These contributions ranged from the immediately practical, such as helping organisations to promote health and safety through adapting working environments, training, and support for those experiencing stress, to more macro-scale engagements with organisational and governmental policy-makers to address precarious work.  

In the final keynote, Professor Tammy Allen (University of Florida, USA) tackled the much-vexed question of balancing work and non-work life while working remotely. Individuals vary in how integrated or separated they prefer these domains to be and how to maintain boundaries between them. When working from home, we might assert boundaries by establishing working hours and spaces – and telling housemates or family about them – or behaving in ways that mimic office routines. Noting the particular impact of the pandemic on working women, Allen suggested that distractions, noise, interruptions, frequent task switching, and the expectation of constant availability from both family and co-workers were common and challenging experiences during this time. Organisations can support employees’ work-life balance by fostering social connection, providing resources to set up good quality home-working environments, and supporting their autonomy, boundary-setting, and detachment from work.

In the concluding panel discussion, Janine Berg (International Labour Organization) pondered who was responsible for helping people successfully work from home. At the individual level, we have some personal agency, other household members can promote gender equality, and small managerial interventions can make a big difference. At a larger scale, unions can hold companies accountable for poor practice and collectively agree protective frameworks, and governments must set appropriate standards, for example by setting laws on dismissal protection or workers’ ability to disconnect. 

However, most workers across the globe don’t work from home, despite the pandemic. Judith Kirton-Darling (industriAll Europe) highlighted that the working conditions of those who must be on site have deteriorated rapidly as a result of the increased digitalisation and automation that is necessary to maintain social distancing, creating a growing disparity with the conditions of remote workers. This points to the need for collective framing of agreements and standards to protect all workers, within which individual agreements can be negotiated. She concluded that this is ‘a policy moment at which your research is arriving at the right time to steer and nourish a political debate’ on managing psycho-social risks at work. 

When we convene in Glasgow in January for the physical EAWOP conference, hopefully we will contribute to these debates even more. See for information.

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