In the past five months, a large section of urban working population has had to move away from their office spaces and work from home (WFH), with the Covid-19 pandemic enforcing a lockdown on offices, warehouses, and factories with the exception of essential services and core industries. The economic recession stirred by the pandemic, has forced this working population to witness wage-cuts, downsizing of staff, slowdown of organizational value chains, angry customers and vendors, and the inevitable – having to work from home, bereft of infrastructure.
This forced migration has rendered working men and women to remain cloistered in confined home spaces, unable to thwart the blurring of time and task boundaries between the family commitments, work space, and a personal space of renewal and replenishment – impacting well-being of the employee. With schools shut down and children sharing the confines of the four walls, most urban families across all social classes, are at best coping.
On the other side, Work From Home (WFH) as a construct and as a business model, has been mooted and touted as the ‘F’ space – offering Flexibility, Fun, Freedom, Focus etc…
This blog is triggered by coaching conversations and anecdotal narratives with several executives that I have worked with over the past several weeks. While the conversations have ranged from themes of working with anxiety, anti-fragility, managing depression, energizing self and others, there have also been nuanced signals on ‘workplace violence and stress’.
It is these nuanced signals that have intrigued me, for there is no research available on impact of workplace violence in the WFH space to fall back upon. The new form of stress and consequent violence impacts all stakeholders at home in a more direct way. Earlier emotional support at home by the family was seen as a force to counter stress, but this element has been challenged today. Given that companies are already stating that WFH is here to stay, even after the lockdowns are removed and or the vaccine builds herd immunity, it is important to examine how WFH enhances stress and consequently workplace violence.
Workplace Violence & Stress: The New Loci
Workplace violence has been described as involving a list of physical and psychological factors, such as bullying, verbal abuse, threats, physical abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse, and occurring on many levels of an organization. (Boyle n.d.).
With WFH being forced upon employees, the loci of workplace violence – especially bullying, abuse and threats has moved to:
- The virtual space and
- The home space.
The lack of boundaries between the family and the employee, often the family ends up witnessing either the violator or the violated, and the act of violation. Research states that witnesses of violent acts including bullying, verbal abuse, and threats might experience similar psychological and behavioural outcomes as direct victims. (Zhou 2016), and thus would not be able to offer support. Recent research also reveals how workplace bullying and violence are risk factors for type 2 diabetes. (Xu 2018).
While researching on stress and violence, I came across Fisher (Fisher 1996) who had painted the following consequences emerging at multiple dimensions in table 1:
Countering Workplace Violence & Stress: Practices
- Shift 1: The Breakdown of Cyclicity & Routines
For many employees, the routines and cyclicity of daily tasks bring in a structure, boundaries, and rules to work. Cyclicity offers a sense of safety and rhythm to the employee – from time boundaries, routine reviews, predictability in meetings et al.
WFH has witnessed a breakdown of cyclicity and routine where most people complain about having no sense of the day and dates anymore. Furthermore many managers are reserving their calendars with meetings from sunrise till late evenings, without looking at time for themselves – for planning, for thinking, for renewal, and for creativity.
It is important to re-build routines and cyclicity and adhere to the new boundaries of tasks and times to work with.
- Shift 2: Dismantling of Emotional Support at Home & at workplace
For a large set of employees, the physicality of workspace has been important – a fixed area to work, spaces to meet and socialize; avenues for team meetings and people connects including grapevines; having meals together, and a clear physical boundary between work and home.
Transitioning into the home space earlier meant the recognition of two different systems and that the home system offered renewal, replenishment, and relatedness – compensating for tasks and transactions at workspace. Today this is perhaps not so, and given the ambient noise, contextual uncertainty, it becomes difficult for the compensation to take place.
Simple practices may help the employee from WFH – including corners or special spaces for work, as opposed to working from everywhere. I see myself getting seduced by the living room couch, or my armchair facing the television or my table next to the window where I can see the falling rain.
Designated work-spaces also offer the family a sense of spatial boundary. It may also lend a sense of privacy – where intense and heated discussions may take place, and insulate the rest of the family from this collateral damage.
And thus the importance of designated family spaces – where one can relax, engage in dialogue, have fun, share narratives etc.
- Shift 3: Enhanced accessibility – No place to be alone or hide
WFH has meant that with shared calendars, no secretaries guarding your space, no excuses for switched off phones and computers, and no long travels, etc., every employee is ‘accessible’ or on call, and there exists almost no space to be alone for introspection, or even seek refuge in. Access has meant back to back meetings, compulsions to return calls, and conversations leaving no space or time for digesting and reflecting on the day.
Accessibility also increases the chances of being bullied, abused and stressed.
The challenge is to communicate to all stakeholders concerned and negotiate limited or no accessibility. This process is critical for insulating the individual WFH from feeling extracted and cornered.
The Underlying Construct
I have been trying to create a causal construct given the complexity of the phenomena – for example, employees have differential levels of tenacity and how each looks at stress; the same task may be seen as a challenging stressor, and thus motivate a creative play vis-à-vis tasks by one person and seen as a hindrance stressor triggering isolation, rage, and despair for another.
- I have chosen not to include the threat of pandemic and how it adds to employee and family stress as well as social violence for it makes the model more complex. While there is evidence of increased conflicts between neighbours, within buildings and gates societies, and social tensions, all resulting in perhaps increased violence at WFH, I do not see this unrest continuing beyond a point.
- In addition to the construct, it is important to leverage the impact of community spaces and institutions including religious gatherings, rituals of replenishment and catharsis etc. for these can also counter stress and violence emerging at WFH
Exploring Organizational Policies
Some of the immediate policies and rules that must be explored by HR leaders on the WFH front include looking at:
- Policies on Work tenure / timings
- Designing interdependences in complex throughputs – delays, lapses, and defects
- Policies around secrecy, firewalling, and classified information that the employee has access to – including virtual meetings on internal and external infrastructure
- Policies on electronic and computing infrastructure to be made available to the employee
- Policies on on-line harassment, bullying, and violence
- Policies on on-line employee behaviour
We are witnessing a shift or a transition in the way organizations are designed and functioning, and in the longer run must examine these capabilities to be built:
- Skills and Capability Building: Learning to be Self Reliant and effective at WFH:
Socialization and teaming alternatives in WFH context as opposed to traditional training and learning interventions that create self-authoring capabilities within employees who would be investing into WFH. Thus investing into human capital and attenuating traditionally extractive roles would be a useful area to work on.
- Tasks Design and Well-being @ WFH:
This is an allied area of research that resonates and complements. The area of task design, defining interdependencies and outputs across a complex throughput needs to be evaluated given the constraints of work from home (WFH). Thus this area of work would allow for cyclicity / routinization to evolve for the employee.
Employee engagement models may evolve with employees spending more time at home and may take the shape of community interventions if not familial interventions.
- Business Models in the emergent context
Design of organizations and alignment with business models becomes a key area – especially when analysing costs structure, efficiency and effectiveness. This study may lead to designing and investing into creating an infrastructure for the WFH employee for him or her to be effective. It may also impact employee costs and overall cost of a service or a product.
In this area, it would be critical to define policies and rules that protect the average WFH employee and his or her rights.
- New Home Design & Architecture aligned to WFH:
There would be resonance with how home spaces and community spaces would be defined in terms of design architecture – where there is an overlap between WFH and living space. This would imply working in flexible inner spaces inside home that are aligned to WFH demands.
The forced mobilization towards WFH represents an irreversible transformation in the design and deployment of tasks for most organizations. It offers a tremendous potential for generating new theory and calls forth for grounded research.
But crucial to all this is the extent of preparedness of organizations.
Boyle, M.J. & Wallis, J. n.d. “Working towards a definition for workplace violence actions in the health sector.” Safety in Health .
Zhou, B., Marchand, A., and Guay, S. 2016. “I see so I feel: Coping with workplace violence among Victims and Witnesses.” IOS Press 125-135.
Xu, T., Hanson, L.M.H., Lange, T., Starkopf, L., Westerlund, H., Madsen, I., Rugulies, R., Pentti, J., Stenholm, S., Vahtera, J., Hansen A. M., Kvivimaki, M., and Rod, N. H. 2018. “Workplace Bullying and Violence as risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a multicohort study and meta analysis.” Diabetologia 75-83.
Fisher, C., Schoenfeldt, L., & Shaw, J. 1996. Human Resource Management (Houghton Mifflin Company) 646-652.
Benismon, H. 1994. “Violence in the Workplace.” Training & Development 27-32.
Sykes, I.J. & Eden, D. 1985. “Research Notes – Transitional Stress, Social Support and Psychological Strain.” Journal of Occupational Behavior 6: 293-298.
Folkman, S., Lazarus, R.S., Dunkel-Schette, C., DeLongis, A., & Grue, R.J. 1986. “Dynamics of a stressful encounter: Cognitive appraisal, Coping, and Encounter outcomes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50: 992-1003.
Ventura, M., Salanova, M., & Llorens, S. 2015. “Professional self-efficacy as a predictor of burnout and engagement: The role of challenge and hindrance demands.” Journal of Psychology 277-302.