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How do Remote Workers Perform during COVID-19 Lockdowns?

*This blog is based on our paper published in the Information Technology and People journal.

Dr Xinying Yu | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London
Prof Yuwen Liu | Professor | Institute of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan

With the advancement of technology in recent years, researchers have raised great interests in remote working in the business and management fields. Known also as teleworking, telecommuting, e-working, or flexible work arrangements (Morgan, 2004), remote working is defined as a flexible work arrangement in which employees work remotely from their offices or production facilities, employees have no direct contact with colleagues but can connect with them via technology (Di Martino and Wirth, 1990).

During COVID-19 pandemic, remote working has become a popular work arrangement for organisations. The increasing number of remote workers who interact with colleagues and customers using different technologies has exerted physical and psychological demands. Although technology enables work collaboration through video and teleconferencing via web applications and technologies, lack of social contact and face-to-face communication among employees in the virtual environment has been reported to cause feeling of professional isolation (e.g., Chamakiotis et al., 2013). Professional isolation is a situation when a remote worker experiences the perception of being ignored, which could negatively impact upon their well-being and performance, increase loneliness, reduce job satisfaction and may result in social and emotional distress (Marshall et al., 2007; Mulki and Jaramillo, 2011).

Empirical studies investigated the antecedents and outcomes of remote working have drawn mixed results. Some researchers have claimed that remote working with more flexibility, job autonomy and better work-life balance enhances workers’ wellbeing, job performance, job satisfaction and reduces turnover (e.g., Kelliher and Anderson, 2010; ter Hoeven and van Zoonen, 2015). Others, however, have argued that professional isolation may disproportionately leave remote workers out of the loop in office interactions (e.g., Grant et al., 2013; Vega and Brennan, 2000), consequently causing psychological and physical stress and hindering their job engagement and performance (Collins et al., 2016; Xanthopoulou et al., 2009).

Although the isolated remote working condition can be detrimental for employee’s attitudes and behaviors, how employees respond to this may vary greatly. A number of studies have identified that psychological hardiness protect employees against stress (Bartone, 2000; Hystad, 2011). The way that psychological hardiness is more effective in isolated working situation is because it is proved to influence how employees interact with their environment and promote effective coping for stressful situations with individual effort (Maddi, 2005).

This study used web-based questionnaires to collect data from 497 remote workers in financial industry in China during pandemic lockdowns, and aims to examine how remote workers perform. We conclude that perceived professional isolation among remote workers triggers their cynicism attitudes toward the meaningfulness of the job and the value of the organization, and in turn results in decreased task performance. Results of the moderation role of psychological hardiness in the relationship between professional isolation and task performance through cynicism support the propositions that although cynicism is expected to emerge from worker perceptions of isolated work environment characteristics and social interactions, these perceptions are filtered through the lens of personality, namely psychological hardiness, to affect individual work performance.

This study offers some practical implications for managers. First, to handle employees’ feeling of professional isolation and cynical attitude, the fundamental principle for managers is to help employees stay connected and maintain good interpersonal and work relationships while working remotely to limit their feelings of isolation. Online interpersonal and workplace activities can be promoted to effectively collaborate and communicate remote workers. Employee engagement programs can be introduced via online platforms, weekly news roundups, fun competition events and staff support surveys, etc. Social support networks among employees could reduce their perceptions of isolation and increase their confidence in conducting tasks by working through challenges, addressing problems, and building team cohesion.

Second, managers could consider reducing the impact of cynicism to improve job performance by introducing clear HR policy and practice to balance job demands (e.g., work pressure and emotional demands) on employees with job resources needed to deal with these demands (e.g., supervisory and organizational support). For instance, organizations could provide mental and well-being training to alleviate employees’ emotional and psychological distress caused by remote. Supportive managers could allocate manageable workloads, clarify task expectations, grant flexibility and autonomy, and provide timely and constructive performance feedback. Avoiding micromanagement could convey a sense of trust in remote working environments which might contribute to greater job performance.

Furthermore, given that psychological hardiness could be developed rather than inborn and hardy employees are more likely to cope with stressful and uncertain situations than unhardy ones, managers could design hardiness training programs to improve employees’ resilience and reduce burnout levels induced by cynicism. In addition, managers could cultivate an appropriate organizational culture to foster employee hardiness. Employee engagement programs could be used as a useful mechanism to build a hardy organizational culture. Managers should set up an example to develop their own hardiness and encourage a hardy workplace to respond to crises more effectively. Employees should be made aware that change is inevitable in a crisis, rising to the challenge and increasing their hardiness could help them cope with difficult situations.

Despite the limited data from financial industry in China and only individual level variables are included, we believe that this study adds value to the research on remote working in a crisis situation by examining the impact of professional isolation and cynicism on task performance and suggesting psychological hardiness as an important characteristic for employees to face challenging situation with courage and motivation.


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