In an era distinguishable by the rapid evolution of technology, the concept of disruption is well known to any business school graduate. However, one of the biggest disruptions people have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic is a digital disruption of a different kind – that of the remote office.

The sudden move to working from a home office has dramatically affected the lives of leaders, managers, workers, parents and even school children. However, it has had a particularly harsh impact on the lives of working tertiary students, especially those who must manage an intricate balancing act to cover work and family commitments while ensuring their studies are uninterrupted. 

In order to understand how the added pressure of this new work reality was potentially impacting their students, GIBS conducted a survey of postgraduate business students – most of whom have full-time employment and family responsibilities – to see how the institution could adapt its approach to better enable a more positive learning experience from its cohort. From the 850 surveys sent, we received 290 (34%) responses.

...a pervasive increase in the levels of anxiety felt by respondents...

Participants were asked several questions which included issues around new working arrangements, changes in workload, work-life balance, the use of digital meeting platforms, and the future format of GIBS programmes, among others.

The results offered clear insights into how people were coping but also into what our students needed to ensure that they were, ultimately, able to successfully adapt to a new way of managing the stresses they were experiencing. The findings have led to a number of important takeaways that will impact how GIBS manages its syllabus in the future. The survey also offers transferable insights for the business world and its leaders.

Our findings

Several key themes around working across digital platforms arose from the survey. The first thing we noticed was a pervasive increase in the levels of anxiety felt by respondents. The majority (84%) reported feelings of nervousness, restlessness, or tension as a result of the pandemic.

Due to the ubiquitous nature of technology, including cell phones and email, people also felt they had to be available continuously to deal with the demands of work. Due to this increased pressure to perform, 71% reported that they found themselves working harder than ever before. In addition to working harder, people were now also trying to find the time to home-school their children and squeeze in quality family time. As a result, people were exhausted.

When it came to the use of digital platforms for meetings, our respondents reported greater levels of frustration. This frustration, in part, was due to the inability to ‘show up’ in terms of individual performances, as they ordinarily would under pre-Covid conditions.

In addition, working through a digital platform does not allow for more nuanced communication, which led to concerns around accountability. A number of people felt that this distant communication was not conducive to holding people accountable. Not only could people not raise issues around work commitments impacted by Covid-19, but they also found that digital platforms prevented them from reading subtle body language from their colleagues – cues we all rely on heavily in the course of face-to-face communication.

This led to another issue around in-person communication: the need for interpersonal communication. This probably informed the resounding response we had from our students to get back to lectures on campus. Just over 27% said they wanted to return to campus full-time, while almost 68% said they would like the university to maintain a blended approach to learning, which included digital and face-to-face content.

People need to interact with people...

People stated that they were missing the in-person interaction with their fellow students. They missed the richness of the discussions taking place, both the more formal ones during class and the informal chats during tea breaks and over lunch. It is these informal discussions, at work and school, that ultimately spur innovation and creativity, and provide the spark that gets projects off the ground.

On a broader business level, understanding the complexities of this new way of working will provide a vital starting point for leaders looking to reimagine their response to the challenges facing their people, and how best to create work environments that encourage better participation.

Reimagining the face of leadership

The overwhelming call from participants in the survey was for organisations to demonstrate greater compassion and care from their organisations and for more empathy and understanding from their leaders.

To deal with the stresses being faced by their employees, leaders need to develop a greater level of mindfulness and understanding of the causes of stress and anxiety. It is now more important than ever that leaders ensure authentic consultation and inclusion in the decision-making processes, especially around those decisions that affect the lives of employees. It also highlights the need for leaders to listen to and be influenced by their followers to ensure optimal decisions are made, as they sincerely take into account the changes in the environment. An example of this would be the performance expectations and metrics being used to gauge employee performance. These should, at the very least, be assessed in terms of their continued appropriateness, given the new work dynamic.

Organisations also need to be cognisant that people need to interact with people. No level of digital communication can match face-to-face discussions, either formally or informally. These informal discussions add a layer of value that is difficult to replicate on virtual or digital platforms, so it is suggested that even while there may indeed be some advantages to working from home, employers and institutions should not underestimate the benefits of a common physical workspace. It is through these spaces that idea creation, peer motivation and inspiration are born – innovation essentials that only tend to come to the fore when colleagues engage face-to-face with one other.

This need for personal interaction has been sought in the classroom environment as well, and this is where business schools must strive to strike the right balance in the future. A blended approach to learning is going to be required. What needs to be asked is how much of the face-to-face classroom time is replaced with digital learning and online content.

While the extraordinary circumstances currently being experienced have certainly brought unwanted challenges, institutions and those leaders who can distinguish themselves by demonstrating empathy, understanding, and care will be in demand. These traits are vital to adapting processes to ensure that institutions are well-positioned to not only weather the storm but to create a platform of sustainable engagement and responsible performance.

Top tips for executives

The survey was both quantitative and qualitative. Through summarising the qualitative responses, we are able to highlight six key tips on how executives can make this transition to a blended workspace more manageable.

1.      Make use of smaller teams to encourage warm contact between employees and managers and to enhance trust.

2.      As the lines between home and work are blurred, draw clear boundaries to protect the wellbeing of already-stretched staff members. For example, no email or WhatsApp between 6pm and 6am on workdays and limit the length of online meetings – 45 minutes is an absolute maximum.

3.      Use the flexibility that available technology gives to enhance collaboration, speed-up decision-making and stimulate innovation.

4.      Deliberately look for fresh ways to engage and include your best talent. Recognition doesn’t only have to be face-to-face.

5.      Offer support for managers to find new ways to manage virtual teams in the online context. What worked before might not work now.

6.      Accept that you are experimenting. You will make mistakes. The whole world is learning to adapt to a post-Covid existence.

Professor Karl Hofmeyr has been a full-time professor at GIBS since 1999, teaching in the areas of leadership and organisational behaviour. Between 1999 and 2009 he was responsible for the Custom Programmes unit at GIBS. Karl has also been a visiting professor at the HEC business school in Paris and the University of British Columbia. His areas of expertise are organisational behaviour, leadership and transformation; employee engagement, individual behaviour and personality; change management; and leadership and personal mastery.

Professor Gavin Price is an admitted attorney. Before joining GIBS as a lecturer, he worked as a corporate legal advisor in the property development industry and later moved to the banking and finance industry. In addition to his expertise in the banking and finance industry, he has considerable experience and knowledge through his work in the property development, retail and motor industries. His areas of expertise are persuasion, corporate governance, ethics and Influence and decision-making.

Dr. Kerrin Myres is a full-time Senior Lecturer at GIBS, teaching in entrepreneurship and qualitative research methodology. She has founded two social enterprises and two for-profit enterprises, as well as mentoring countless entrepreneurs during the start-up and growth phases of their businesses. In addition to her entrepreneurial experience, Kerrin has consulted to a variety of private, public and non-profit enterprises across sub-Saharan Africa.

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