Invisible Changes: How COVID-19 Blurred the Boundaries of Work Relationships

Resilience and Mental Well-Being
10 Minute Read
September 27, 2021

Noticed anything different in your work relationships lately?

Much of the collective conversation around COVID-19 focused on its effect on traditional workplaces, and increasing preferences for virtual work. No wonder. A lot changed in a short time. There are obvious and superficial changes. We Zoom. We Jabber. Technologies invented before this crisis provided the solutions many needed to remain productive throughout it. In the process, we also changed the way we work like honing other, more complex skills. The circumstances, out of necessity, fostered problem-solving, creativity and dealing with ambiguity. Arguably, we’ve emerged more agile. Not so obvious, but observable change.

But we believe our shared “shelter-in-place” experience may have had a more profound impact on work. There is a more seismic shift that is both difficult to detect and which no one is talking about. It's about your relationships at work.

We believe this forced experiment has changed how we relate to authority. Our shared experience has levelled the playing field. There is no enringing that bell. So what happened?

Firstly, our behavior is always a function of our broader environment. Consider children: devils at home, angels at grandmas. Same kids. The physical environment influences our psychological boundaries. For many, suddenly, the work environment has changed and this has had an impact. Whether it’s the corner office, the Armani suit or just the raised brow of the leader, how we understand authority and therefore behave, is signaled by the environment. In the absence of these cues, I behave a little more like … me.

Secondly, something else was happening. We weren’t just “working from home”. We were working with our children, spouses, and barking dogs. With greying hair and sweatpants necessitated by “Covid 15”. While some of us used virtual backgrounds to hide the backdrop of our kitchen table, others didn’t. Our bosses saw our lives. And we saw theirs. We were truly #allinthistogether. We have seen one another more comfortable and more vulnerable. It is a paradox and a very human thing.

The result? Intimacy. And intimacy blurs traditional boundaries. Many companies touted inclusion. But it took a crisis to rapidly advance us. We witnessed genuine care for others and their well-being in the corporate world. Separated we were more inclusive. Another paradox we've mastered. Who’d want to go back?

Finally, we’ve worked under stress. We worried about health, finances, job security, or simply missing out. These take a toll. I have less actual, mental capacity to perceive nuance, or find a tactful response or even hold my temper. The stress, and in these unique instances, its pervasiveness and relentlessness, meant I didn’t always have the mental reserves to hold counterproductive behaviors in check. I may be a little less deferential, and a little less compliant. And under the circumstances, it was ok. Nothing broke.

Now what?

We’ve spoken to many HR practitioners and they report similar observations. And shame on us if we’re surprised. The science is well established and we could have predicted this response; the negative impact of stress on behavior, the positive impact of expressed vulnerability on relationships and even the impact on the physical environment on behavior. It is a wonder more people aren’t talking about it.

We urgently need a purposeful dialogue about the impact of the prolonged “stay at home” on corporate life. We discuss returning to the workplace, the effect on productivity of virtual work or the potential to reduce overhead. But we can't ignore the obscure yet powerful impact on the psychological boundaries. It's the invisible issues that leaders stumble over.

And we think there are at least three strategies all of us should embrace;

  • Raise your self-awareness, to get clear on your personal response to changing boundaries,
  • Develop personal strategies for building new skills to support you be more effective in the new environment, and
  • Know how you will support others, as they navigate this change. After all, #weareallinthistogether.

Raise Self Awareness

This is all about being conscious about examining whether new, less formal boundaries are working for you. You need a point of view about the impact of these new dynamics with bosses, peers and subordinates. How else will you know what you need to do differently?

In order to get comfortable with the idea that power relationships have changed, try these practical tips.

  • Take stock. Be mindful and in the moment. Observe changes. Acknowledge them. Explore the dynamics of blurred boundaries with peers and your team. Depending on your role, maybe even organization. Write it down. This grounds you in the present.
  • Now, do a mental contrasting exercise to peek into the future. Visualize the positive outcomes of the newly honed ways of working. Be specific. Describe how it benefits you [your team, your colleagues, your business...]. Then, consider the obstacles to your productivity and success. What will stand in the way of achieving the positive outcomes? Multiple studies have demonstrated that mental contrasting is a powerful technique to solidify your perspective on a topic.

Build The Skills You Need

Second, based on this awareness, identify your personal strategies for building the skills needed to deal with blurring lines of authority. Try these simple steps.

  • Conduct a skills audit. Do you have the skills you’ll need in an environment where others are likely to be more candid and open? How are you at listening to others, or receiving feedback, or managing informally? Consider asking others for feedback, in a psychologically safe way. A simple, “What is the one thing that I could do differently in this new environment?” will solicit insight and ideas. And now it’s time to plan.
  • Based on the outcomes of the audit, choose a micro-skill you need to master and practice it. We define a micro-skill as the minimal observable component of a competency. For example, asking a colleague about a piece of decoration in their apartment that you see on the Zoom camera is a micro-skill of the Interpersonal Relationships competence. We love miscro-skills because they are concrete, actionable, and practicable.

Support Others

Finally, and in the spirit of #allinthistogether, you will want to support others. They will struggle too. Be more patient, understanding, and forgiving when others overstep your boundaries. It's a time for empathy.

  • Ask. In your one-on-ones, take time to inquire into the new dynamics, whims, and challenges of the new ways of working. Don't be afraid to over-communicate. Research tells us that leaders typically under-communicate in times of change, by a factor of ten! So, you are safe with engaging more with your colleagues. Then, go beyond individual conversations. Hold a team session to discuss individual experiences of working from home. Select a topic. Whether it is discussing how to remain productive or have difficult conversations, how to providing recognition or navigate work-life balance, sharing collective experiences will create the trust and psychological safety your team needs to thrive in the turbulent times.
  • Lead by example. Start each team meeting with sharing how you have experienced the blurred psychological boundaries. Be self-deprecatingly open about your web conferences wearing a tie and slippers, at the same time. Why not tell them how your own boss gave you feedback recently and how that conversation unfolded? Such examples are powerful because they signal both your awareness of the issues and a safe environment for the rest of the team.

Parting Remarks

Eventually, many of us will return to the workplace. Wherever that may be. Many of the physical cues of the past will return, but we have potentially built new, less formal, and less hierarchical habits. That of itself would be an adjustment. But we believe our mental whiplash will be extreme. Why? Because from the less formal, and arguably more human relationships forged at home, we will return to a workplace with a new, forced formality. Our workplaces must include face masks, and social distancing, and restrictions on our traditional corporate gestures of goodwill; the handshake, slap on the back, or a team high five. For the collective good, training, conferences, and networking will be discouraged. We can think of no greater juxtaposition to the informality of the Zoom happy hour, barking dogs included.

Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance and are co-authors of “Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback.” Leveraging Fortune 500 experience gained across four continents, they equip leaders with practical tools for success. This article represents the authors’ personal opinions and not those of their employers or affiliated organizations.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

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