"World after", "new normal"... The great disillusionment for employees
Updated: May 1, 2022
Institut Mines-Télécom Business School
Florence Laval* (photo)
*Members of the Business Science Institute faculty.
Article originally published on The Conversation France.
The Covid-19 crisis in the world of work opened the way to a discourse on the theme of "nothing will be the same as before" in the "world after". The confrontation with health risks, the need for social distancing and the use of information technologies to continue some of the activities suggested a reenchantment of work around a new normality of post-Covid management described by consulting firms as "new normal".
While health constraints are gradually decreasing in many countries, it is relevant to question the conditions under which companies are approaching this new normality today. This is all the more essential as the context in which this "post-Covid" era begins is characterized by a phase of disillusionment among employees and managers alike, as shown by a study we conducted among 500 respondents between March 2020 and April 2021.
In the heat of the moment, with the lifting of constraints linked to the health crisis and the need to relaunch the business, company directors and managers may indeed tend to forget what the Covid-19 crisis has created in terms of employees' experiences and expectations.
An organization experienced as dislocated
Between the spring of 2020 and 2021, the crisis created three emotional phases among the employees: a phase of exaltation, then a phase of trauma and finally a phase of disillusionment.
During the first containment, it is indeed the exaltation that dominates the discourse after the stupor. During this period, the idea spreads among employees and managers that the constraint of the crisis will push management, line managers and human resources management (HRM) to question their practices and to improve the management of the pre-crisis period in order not to go backwards. A manager in his fifties interviewed is still convinced of this:
« I believe that the constraints of the health crisis that we have experienced and are still experiencing will impose new organizational modes on us. I am convinced that certain organizational rigidities will disappear, imposed by our new modes of operation. »
The second phase, that of the second confinement, is that of the trauma. The first containment remains in everyone's mind. The second phase is thus characterized by the awareness of the constraining effects of the pandemic and the long-term stakes for the corporate way of life.
At this point, respondents generally expressed the view that the crisis was aggravating what was already wrong with management. In the space of nine months, respondents have lost the illusion that the crisis could improve management, and 67% say that the crisis is not changing anything, or that it is worsening what was already wrong, compared with 45% in the first phase.
For example, an employee over the age of 55 said:
« Since the beginning of the crisis, there has been a tendency to replicate the existing organization: meetingitis, for example, on remote work. If we continue to apply this existing organization, we will not change the culture, we may even worsen the state of the previous system ».
A comparison of the responses between March 2020 and December 2020 clearly shows these changes.
Finally, during the third period (February to April 2021), one idea emerges: this crisis is going to last and the change is irreversible. The employees expect a framework for the resumption of activity that redefines everyone's place, taking into account what they have learned from the crisis. However, they are still under no illusion that the organization will listen to their expectations, as a young employee regrets, for example, about teleworking:
« Telework must become more automatic, and not only possible in case of force majeure. We need to rethink our work organization to fully integrate it into our company. The difficulty is that we are not on the same wavelength with management. »
Employees are still looking for solutions to be able to do their work in the face of an organization experienced as dislocated and disorganized, prey to the less drastic but regular changes of the health context.
From "we" to "us"
In this context, informal work methods are being recomposed. One employee emphasized that they are characterized by a form of withdrawal.
« In my company, I notice that there are several communities that come together on their own without needing to be in the company. So I wonder if in companies, these communities that come together on their own without needing to be in the company, isn't this a splintering? »
This testimony illustrates the ascending hierarchical classification of the verbatims collected in our survey of sentences that use "I", those using "we" and finally among those beginning with "we".
The results show the evolution of the involvement over time. In the first phase, the respondents used "we" as a sign of their involvement in the group, in the second phase they reverted to "I" and in the third phase the use of "we" was in the majority.
The use of "we" reveals a distancing from a more anonymous collective. "We" is used to refer to oneself and to others. The use of "we" shows that a system logic is imposed on the individual to the detriment of a collective commitment. The collective is not mobilized; it seems that the individual waits for "the company" (symbolized by the "we") to propose an organization so that the collective can function. The "I" could turn against the company...
Contempt of indifference
The Covid-19 crisis was an ordeal, as described by the French historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon in his recent essay "Les épreuves de la vie : comprendre autrement les Français" (Éditions le Seuil), for all employees. As the post-crisis period gets underway, adding to this ordeal that of contempt and indifference, by acting as if nothing had changed, could lead to an even more strained relationship between the employee and the institution that is the company.
Currently, employees seem to be waiting for a framework to act in an environment perceived as dislocated. However, being directive is not the same as being autocratic: taking into account business practices, accepting a degree of semi-autonomous regulation, or listening to opinions and reactions from the field can provide a precise diagnosis of the individual and collective human impacts of the crisis.
Before entering the "next world", these principles can also help to avoid missing out on the positive lessons of the crisis. An employee under 35 insists:
« This experience proved that teleworking could be beneficial and effective with my team. I expect my company to recognize telework, and also to move from a culture of distrust and control to one of trust and caring. »
The "new normal" must therefore aim first and foremost to create a link between the past and the present, between managers and employees, and between employees and employees, in order to avoid withdrawal and revive collective commitment.
Faced with this risk, it is more necessary than ever to recall the company's missions, its values, the key elements of the business or businesses, and to ensure that the culture of the social body, which has been built up over the years with its rituals, symbols and myths, is not denied. In other words, the crisis has simply reminded us of the fundamentals of the company: why and for what reason have a group of individuals chosen, at a given moment, to work together in a structure?
Article translated from French with https://www.deepl.com/translator
Aurélie Dudezert's articles on The Conversation France.
Aurélie Dudezert's books & articles via CAIRN.info.
Florence Laval's articles on The Conversation France.
Florence Laval's books & articles via CAIRN.info.