New Normal: COVID-19 and the Leadership Crisis with Jean-Nicolas Reyt

Season 2 Episode 1 of The ‘New Normal’ hosted by Dave Kaufman: New Normal: COVID-19 and the Leadership Crisis with Jean-Nicolas Reyt
Dave Kaufman – host: When the pandemic began, the way we did business changed. The corner office was switched up for a seat at the dining room table. You might have gone from having an executive bathroom key to taking time in between your Zoom meetings to help your child potty train. The beehive workplace? Just the mere thought of it now fills you with dread and unease. Will we ever return to the before times, or should we stop waxing nostalgic for the past and be striving for something more? How about we strive for something better, such as a work life balance that could leave us more fulfilled, both personally and professionally.
Dave Kaufman – host: Welcome to the second season of the New Normal, the podcast exploring management research brought to you by Delve, the official thought leadership publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman. On this episode of the New Normal, we will discuss the future of work, workspaces, and how management has changed due to the pandemic. Among the issues today’s episode will explore, the benefits of embracing a hybrid work style, how COVID has inefficiencies in management and the simple investment companies can make to show their workers they do in fact have their backs. Joining me for this episode is Professor Jean-Nicolas Reyt. Dr. Reyt is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
Dave Kaufman – host: Professor Reyt’s research focuses on the relationship between the distances people consider such as when working remotely and important work outcomes including creativity, exploratory learning, and interpersonal influence. He was also recognized as the 2021 Professor of the Year by McGill’s Management Undergraduate Society. Last year Reyt researched the language used by CEOs in their conference calls at the beginning of the COVID crisis in order to get their thoughts and impressions on remote work. I began our conversation by asking Professor Reyt if his research told him that CEOs views on remote work had changed since the pandemic disrupted all of our lives.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Definitely. If you look at how CEOs were talking about the pandemic in the beginning and the challenges that were raised, a lot of them were seeing it as mostly IT challenge. It was how are we going to get everybody working from home? How are we going to get laptop computers to everyone? How are we going to get secured lines? How are we going to get people to work from home and still have banking information without being hacked? But as it progressed over time, new challenges started to happen. So at first there was a skepticism about, are people going to be actually working? Is it really successful? And that stems from a long-term skepticism that’s been going on for 30 years where people are really wondering if people are at home, they’re just not going to work. But as time progressed, CEOs have been more and more optimistic about it saying, “Well, this is actually working really well and now it creates new opportunities.”
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: A lot them started saying, “Well, maybe we don’t have to be so focused on real estate, on having offices that need to get bigger and bigger. Maybe we can save money here.” A lot of employees were saying, “Work life is a lot better. I don’t have to commute so much. I can take better care of my family. That matters a great deal to me.” So CEOs were saying, “Well, it doesn’t really cost us anything and it’s beneficial to employees. So maybe we can continue doing this.” And what’s really interesting is this massive shift that happened where so many CEOs were against remote work and a year into the pandemic were saying, “Well, we’re going to do hybrid work. We’re going to work several days a week from home, several days a week from the office or whatever mix you find.”
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: And that creates new challenges as well, because now you have to figure out how are you going to manage people in this new work environment? So I think there’s been a lot of challenges, a lot of interesting challenges and a lot of evolution in the way CEOs have been thinking about it. But most importantly, it’s been a radical shift in the way we consider the relationship between the organization and the employee and the relationship between the employee and their work.
Dave Kaufman – host: I found myself intrigued by professor Reyt’s focus on hybrid work. Hybrid work or telework does seem to be where our world is now headed. But what would the indicators be that show that an organization is well suited to hybrid work?
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So we actually have a lot of research on telework. Research on telework started in the 90s and something that was learned very, very early on is that full-time telework is very difficult to do. And the reason full-time telework is very difficult to do is because people tend to feel isolated, they don’t really fit in the culture anymore, and they start thinking of themselves as more consultants or freelancers than employees. This is why, if you look at how actual telework programs have been developed in organizations that took it seriously, organizations that said, “Well, we’re going to offer an actual program.” They don’t just send people home full time. What they do is they make sure that people have a separate room, for example, where they can work with a desk and a professional phone line and a professional internet line.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Then there is like training so that managers can understand how do you manage somebody who is working from home part of the week. And then they also schedule things differently so that when the employee is working from home, they can do more of the tasks that are individually based. And when they’re at the office and they have most of their meetings, this is when it really matters that people can interact and share more about the culture and what’s important. What we used to call telework, which is working mostly from home and then part of the time from the office or whatever the mix is, now we’re calling it hybrid work. It used to be telework and we have a lot of research that it works.
Dave Kaufman – host: So if hybrid work does in fact work, then who is affected negatively by this change? One of the first casualties that comes to mind is the city centre. My city, Montreal, for example, has suffered greatly since the start of the crisis. Downtown is deserted, offices sit and all ancillary businesses have been greatly hurt by the lack of people visiting the city centre. I was curious if professor had any indication from his research, if CEOs feel any responsibility as corporate citizens to help with the revival of downtown city centres.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: What I see in my data is that CEOs are really, really focused on know how to keep the company afloat. And a lot of times it’s not really so much the CEO that talks about the real estate footprint, it’s the CFO. If you look, in a lot of cost structures of companies, probably the number one cost in a lot of knowledge intensive companies is the workforce. But the number two cost is real estate. I think a lot of CFOs are trying to balance out their budgets have been saying, “We’ve been saving all of that money to build this second building, but now we’re like thinking maybe we don’t have to build it anymore, or maybe we can sell this building.” So I really don’t see in my data much concern about city centres, but I think it’s more individually based organizations are doing what’s best for them.
Dave Kaufman – host: Reyt is clear that as much as the individual may be empathic to the problems facing the city, the work shift we’re currently seeing is one that benefits the company, the worker, and the ability to better do the work itself.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: I think about city centres, something to think about there’s a lot of businesses are a suffering and I see it. My favourite French bakery is suffering a lot and I talk to them about it and it’s very difficult because a lot of companies are just not coming back. But at the same time, this is happening, but you also had a lot of distress, a lot of anxiety from people working in towers, office buildings in the city centre. That was not like a utopia, stacking people up in huge towers, cramming them into subways, where they would have huge commute times. 50 years ago, the main diseases or difficulties people were having were back problems. So it was the main thing where, what employees are struggling with? Well, their back hurt. Now it’s stress and anxiety and a lot of it is because we’re crammed into smaller and smaller places.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: There is a lot of crowding going on and this is stressful to people. I do some research, I have this paper coming out about the negative effects of crowding on human behaviour and there is really a well established link when people are in a crowded situation, they become more aggressive. This is not something that was so great before. So I think it’s a little bit give and take. On the one hand, definitely there is a negative impact on the economy in terms of city centres, on the other hand, there is also relief for millions of employees that instead of going to crammed building five days a week, maybe they’re just going to do it three days a week.
Dave Kaufman – host: When laid out like that even three days a week in the beehive seems like too many.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yes. If you see about how remote work, what organizations implemented it, the easiest in the transition, it was every single organization that already had a program. So typically, they have work that’s pretty standardized where you can manage people over the phone or over just the internet. Organizations who have telework programs, typically they have a lot of customer representatives who work over the phone. So all the call centres, customer representatives, it’s very easy to just have them work from home because all they need is a computer and a telephone. Nobody will ever know they’re not in a central office. And also, it was a good way to capture interesting employees. You want to give them benefits if you want to have people continuing to do such a hard job, because it’s very difficult to be a customer representative. You get yelled at all day, it’s very difficult. But if you can offer them to work part of the week from home, well, it becomes a lot more desirable, because then maybe you have a single mother that it’s really going to help if she can do that.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: The jobs that have transitioned the fastest during the pandemic were all of the hotlines, customer representatives, all of the standardized office job, because all of the management methods were already in place to be done virtually. Then you have jobs that are a bit more difficult, which is the more collaborative jobs, the more knowledge intensive jobs. I’ve seen, for example, some CEOs who have consultants, or who have creative people, or engineers, they’re saying, “Yes, it has advantages but at the time, a lot of our work is about solving problems in teams. And now we have to create all of these Zoom meetings and it’s very difficult to get ahold of everyone.” These jobs are a bit more difficult to transition, but this is why there is hybrid work so that you can have the best of both worlds.
Dave Kaufman – host: But this only seems to work for those of a certain status. We’ve heard the complaints from lower income workers. We’ve heard how working from home is much less equitable for women and minorities. Professor Reyt mentions overcrowding in an office space, but for those who come home to three kids and a dog and a cat in their small apartment, they may be running into those overcrowding problems at home. And now the biggest of all problems may be that home and work is a blurred line.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: It’s definitely an issue we’ve opened up window into people’s homes and now we can see really how they’re living. I see this in the classroom as well. This is something I never thought about, but I have a lot of students who are sharing bedrooms with younger siblings. This makes studying from home very difficult. I never thought about this. It never occurred to me that students would be in such a situation. That’s the same thing for employees. Some employees are not in good conditions. But here I think something that’s very important to understand is if you want employees to work from home, you have to give them the means of doing so.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Meaning, if you’re not going to invest any money in real estate, some of that money has to be dedicated to investing in home offices. I know there’s been a lot of struggles in organizations where companies have been seeing work from home or hybrid work as mainly a way to save money. But some of that money has to be invested back into the workforce. It’s extremely important so that people maybe can live a bit further away because they don’t have to come to work every day but also they can have an extra home office where they can work. And that requires investments.
Dave Kaufman – host: Professor Reyt then describes a simple investment that a company can make to improve both morale and the health of their now working from home employee – a proper office chair.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: One of the things that was striking to me, and one of the reasons I’ve been going more in the media since the pandemic hit is because people were coming to me and were telling me that they had no proper office chair, which was really pretty insane to me because this is one of the most important aspects, the physical health of an office worker, they need to have a good office chair. And we have a lot of regulations in buildings and there’s a lot of different regulations that make employers responsible for providing good office equipment when it’s on premises. But this was not translated when people were working from home. So every time I was meeting somebody new, whether it was a CEO or whether it was a journalist, I was always asking them, “What’s going on with office chairs?
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: What are you doing?” And I think just like everything else for this pandemic, you really can contrast two different approaches. You have different companies where they gave $1,000 to employees so that they could buy an office chair and an office desk and they could be seated properly. And then you have other companies where they didn’t know what to do because they were saying, “We can’t give you the office chairs from work because we’re not covered with insurance. They need to stay within premises. We didn’t vote budgets last year for office chairs.”
Jean-Nicolas Reyt So for the longest time you had employees who basically were sitting on kitchen chairs or just normal chairs. It’s extremely important here to understand that when everything is different, when the world is different and you ask people to work part of the time from home, you have to give them the right conditions to do so. And that involves having the right equipment, having the right office chairs. That also involves having the right type of management. Just the same way you can do things the same in terms of office chairs, it’s the same thing about management. You can’t manage them the same if they’re working from home as if they were working all week from the office.
Dave Kaufman – host: The right type of management is crucial. And among the issues laid bare by COVID is how quickly bad management has been exposed.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So I’ve been saying for a long time that COVID-19 is a medical crisis, but it’s also a leadership crisis. And every employee that listens to us, they’re going to fit into one of two categories. They’re going to fit into either they have someone who’s at the top of the organization who’s more a manager, meaning somebody who implements existing systems, versus somebody who’s a leader. Somebody is able to understand that the world has changed, that things need to be done different, so it’s fine. Let’s just do things different. In terms of management, what’s extremely important to understand is that you can’t control how people are working when they’re working from home. You just can’t. They’re not there. You can’t see them. You don’t focus on that. You focus on explaining to them why they’re working. You have to remind them exactly what the purpose of their work is so that they have meaning in it and then you let them figure out the how.
Dave Kaufman – host: So, as we look towards the future, even once the pandemic is far in our rear view mirror, Professor Reyt seems sure that many of us will never have to step back into an office for 40 hours a week ever again.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Definitely. If you look in my data, I can really see that pretty much all of the more modern technology sectors, they’re saying, “We’ve switched to work from home permanently.” Not all of them, but a lot of them. And those who are not switching permanently to it, they’re switching in terms of hybrid work. And they’re saying, “We’re just going to be a lot more flexible into space.” And now they’re thinking, what should the new office, the office of the future, what should it look like? It shouldn’t look like a beehive, that’s for sure, because that’s irrelevant now. You don’t need a beehive if people are only here two or three days a week. What you need is a place where people can collaborate, where people can exchange information or they can learn from one another, not little cells where people are spending eight hours a day.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So I definitely believe that a lot of sectors have announced that they will not come back to how it was before. There’s a variety of reasons for this. It makes sense from a financial perspective, it’s very difficult for companies to stay afloat in a pandemic. So they’re saying, “It’s removing a lot of financial burden for us,” but also they’re realizing that the overwhelming majority of employees enjoy working from home part of the week. They do, it’s useful to them. A lot of families have two parents working and it was a struggle. They had to leave work, go pick up the kid, take care of the kid, bathe the kid, and then they put the kid to bed and then continued working. Now people can be a lot more flexible about that kind of stuff. If something the organization can do can have positive impacts on how people live their lives, then it makes sense that they continue doing so.
Dave Kaufman – host: It’s so important for the organization to have that positive impact. We’ve seen so much burnout since the start of COVID and with the changing work environments, more of an emphasis has been put on trying to ensure that a proper work life balance does exist.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Definitely. One of the main arenas of research in telework over the past 30 years has been how can teleworkers manage the overlap or the blurring between work and life? It is very tricky. There are advantages in having blurred boundaries, which is you can manage better competing demands. You’re not stuck at work while you have a personal problem you can’t deal with. You can switch around. The problem of course, it creates new expectations of how responsive are you going to be to emails? Can I ask you at 7:00 PM to work and do something by tomorrow? For managers, something extremely important to understand is this is not tenable to just ask people to be constantly reachable, to be constantly able to answer emails. And what I see a lot of employees are doing is they’re reinstating some boundaries between their work and their life.
Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Successful telework programs, for example, already have a spatial boundary. Past telework programs, a lot of them would not allow you to work from home if you didn’t have a separate home office, just would not allow you to do it because they know that if you start working in your kitchen, or your living room, you’re going to have so many different things, competing demands, all that kind of stuff. It’s very difficult to deal with. But there is also something about the temporal boundary. How are you going to separate your work and your life? I see a lot of people who are saying, “I don’t respond to emails on the weekend anymore. I don’t respond to emails after 7:00 PM.” And I encourage people to do so. You need also to train your manager, you need to show that there is a limit to how much you’re going to work. And this is extremely important for people’s mental health to have boundaries between work and homes so that they’re not drowning in this constant monitoring of emails and working anytime, anywhere.
Dave Kaufman – host: The pandemic has changed so much in our day-to-day lives. And humans have shown such resiliency by adapting quickly and effectively, even when faced with great obstacles and challenges to our status quo. As the distances and expectations of work change, will companies adapt as quickly as their workers? Stay tuned as we navigate this new normal together. The New Normal is brought to you by Delve, the official thought leader, publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman. Producers of today’s episode, Dave Kaufman, Robyn Fadden and David Rawalia. The technical producer of the New Normal is David Rawalia.