COVID-19's Impact on the Workplace
Research shows the long-lasting effects of COVID on workers and work.
Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
The sudden emergence of COVID-19 has drastically altered the work of many around the world, changing workplace environments from one of camaraderie to isolation at home. In this interview, Kevin Kniffin describes the direct and indirect impacts the pandemic has had on workers and the workplace.
Kevin Kniffin is a faculty member in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University whose research and teaching focuses on teamwork and leadership across disciplinary boundaries. During the early part of 2020, he teamed up with 28 collaborators from business schools across the world to co-author "COVID-19 and the Workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action," which is available online via American Psychologist.
Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Kevin Kniffin: The pandemic was obviously impactful across the world, but it was far less obvious how widely it would—or will—impact the nature of work and the experience of workers. "COVID-19 and the Workplace" brings together experts and expertise on a wide array of topics of close and direct relevance to workers and work. Our goals included making sense of the fast and far-reaching changes that COVID-19 caused, as well as charting roadmaps for researchers and practitioners to navigate those changes.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
KK: "COVID-19 and the Workplace" has three main sets of topics. First, "Emergent Changes in Work Practices" where we look at work from home, virtual teamwork, and virtual leadership and management. Second, "Emergent Changes for Workers" where we look at social distancing and loneliness, health and well-being, and unemployment and inequality. Third, "Moderating Factors" where we look at demographic characteristics, individual differences, and organizational norms.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
KK: Academic researchers tend to specialize very intensively on selected topics; and so, there was an initial stage of co-learning from each other since 29 of us collaborated on this ranging work. One of those lessons that we highlight in the article is that the abrupt and massive requirement for so many workers to work from home as a result of COVID-19 is different from what "WFH" meant before COVID-19, since people who were working from home before the pandemic did so with mutual agreement between the employer and employee. For all three sets of topics that we study in the article, though, we take similar steps to bring current research to bear on the emergency of COVID-19 for workers and work.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
KK: Very few people could have anticipated COVID-19’s effect around the world. In fact, when we were working on the paper in early 2020 before it was published, it still seemed possible—to optimists, at least—that the pandemic would be over in relatively short order. In other words, even if the pandemic had been contained and effectively eliminated in a matter of months, we anticipated that there would have been far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. As the pandemic has lasted much longer than just a few months, the "seismic" changes that we analyze in "COVID-19 and the Workplace'' warrant particularly close attention.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
KK: To use the metaphor of an iceberg, there are so many impacts of the pandemic and related lockdowns—and curbs on pre-COVID behavior—that it's beneficial to consider impacts that are direct and indirect (or "below the surface") as well as the probability that some of the changes will be long-lasting. For example, "COVID-19 and the Workplace" reviews prior research on the fact that some people are prone to be "integrators" between work and non-work while some are prone to be "segmentors." Awareness and consideration of those kinds of frameworks, which took on new importance in light of COVID-19, is helpful for making sense of and working through various challenges posed by the pandemic.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?
KK: People have talked about "k-shaped" recoveries in relation to COVID-19 to refer to the divergent outcomes that many have experienced, with the net effect being that inequalities before COVID have widened during the pandemic. In our article, we highlight many dimensions on which the pandemic has yielded divergent outcomes. Sensitivity to that fact—along with recognition that the "k-shaped" metaphor only scratches the surface of the varied impacts of COVID-19—is an important first step for navigating forward.
Kniffin, K. M., Narayanan, J., Anseel, F., Antonakis, J., Ashford, S. P., Bakker, A. B., ... & Vugt, M. V. (2021). COVID-19 and the workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action. American Psychologist, 76(1), 63–77.(https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2020-58612-001)