In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Corinne Post and Liuba Belkin about helping teams adapt to working from home in this coronavirus environment.

Post is the chair of the department of management at Lehigh Business. She was one of the authors of a recent paper, Team Dispersion and Performance--Examining the Role of Team Communications and Transformational Leadership

Belkin is an associate professor in Lehigh Business’ department of management. She studies interpersonal effects of emotions, the influence of electronic communications on employee relationships, decision-making and performance, and also trust within groups. She is one of the authors of Killing Me Softly, Organizational Email Monitoring Expectations' Impact on Employees and Significant Others Well-being.

They spoke with Rob Gerth, director of marketing and communications for Lehigh Business. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Rob Gerth: Are employees who are working from home now for an extended period of time, maybe for the very first time, are they going to have trouble dealing with the fact that there's now no physical barriers anymore, no boundaries between work and home?

Liuba Belkin: I think it will be a steep slope, let's be honest, especially if the employee has never had an experience working from home. It's not only hard for them but also for their family members to understand what's called work-home boundaries. That's an important thing, that family members also understand that employees are actually working during the time, and allow them to have their own space without interruptions. I also think it's a critical role in leadership from an organizational side allowing employees all the resources to be able to effectively manage this work-family time working from home.

Corinne Post: Also, when team members are dispersed across space, coworkers find it increasingly difficult to understand each other and to trust each other. When you're not close to those and feeling trusting and understanding of others, there is also potentially less of a sense of joint responsibility in shared kind of goals. As teams go virtual, it's really key that leaders can play a role here in addressing these challenges of communication, of cooperation and of coordination if they want their teams to continue and to work and to perform effectively.

Gerth: How do leaders need to adjust their style as far as running teams?

Post: There are multiple fronts, especially if the team in question has no experience with working virtually with one another. It is important to build the team, to focus on the collective, to help the team as a whole understand which member knows what, and which member brings what to the team because, as we're separated, we might kind of lose focus around the difficult time of understanding really who we can rely on for what in accomplishing our goal. 

Another important part of this is to structure work, to make clear the team knows what it is we're accomplishing, to really maintain strong communication if we have virtual meetings and make sure everybody is always on the same page. 

Gerth: As a team member, what do I need to do?

Post: It's important to recognize and acknowledge each other's contributions. Often, on virtual teams, people will contribute their piece, and it kind of goes into a black hole. We might, on the receiving end, read and adapt and incorporate the material or the information received from our team members or process it. But that person has no way of knowing where it went. I think acknowledging each other's contributions, recognizing those contributions is one key step.

Gerth: Is gender going to play a role here? 

Belkin: One of the papers that Corinne and I did with another colleague last year actually focused on the role that gender plays in times of crisis for subordinate and employee trust. We found that gender does make a difference, especially in times of uncertainty. Gender not just in terms of a male or female, but more gender-specific behaviors. For example, what we saw is that in times of crisis or uncertainty when people are anxious, there is perception of threat. People expect leaders to implement this relational and emotional management behavior. So be more empathetic, regulate their own emotions, and also try to help mitigate negative emotions in their followers. And that really makes a difference for the followers in times of crisis. If male leaders adopt these more relational behaviors that usually are associated with female leadership, this probably gives them an advantage in this time so followers will be more receptive to these behaviors. And they can probably increase trust and manage the crisis more efficiently.

Gerth: In this situation where we're going into, where everybody is going to be working from home, what's going to suffer more work or family?

Belkin: Leaders and organizations have to understand that for their employees to be productive and happy, they really need to let them unwind and take time to detach and engage in activities they like. There is a big part in terms of organization and policies, in times of when you kind of work around the clock at home. But there is something that the employees can do as well regardless of what the policies of organizations are. One thing I suggest in an upcoming article that still we're working on is, is that employees take a proactive approach in managing stress. And what we suggest is that they create these physical boundaries at home. For example, saying, "Every morning, especially now from 10:00 to 2:00, I am engaged at work. And then I have a break for an hour or two, and I'm spending my time with the family, and then again I work for another couple of hours." Same with weekends.

Gerth: Do you have any tips that leaders or team members might enact to help them be productive and as happy?

Post: What we're losing out by going virtually is a lot of the small interactions, the waving at somebody as you walk past their office, the smile, just catching up on each other. And so, some ways to do that by email is just-- I've seen this on teams and on my own teams is sometimes one of us will send out something funny. And maybe over the next few hours, we'd go back and forth. So, it's a little bit of bantering. It doesn't extend excessively, but it does provide a little bit of glue that can hold people together. Checking in with each other as well, it's one way that leaders can show their team that they care, that they're there. Maybe even having phone calls occasionally so virtually doesn't need to be just the computer-mediated sort of communication. Those things can help preserve maybe a little bit of those social interactions, social fabric, the glue of teams

But the bigger picture is-- I think we need to remind ourselves that we're all in this together. I mean, we're all-- not just here in Pennsylvania, Lehigh, but everywhere around the world, we're all in this together. We need to be patient with each other, and we need to appreciate each other. None of us signed up for this at all. And so do what you can, marvel at what we're accomplishing and how resilient we are. I think that will be something to sit back every day and say, "Look at what we're able to do despite and with all that's happening." And we'll all look back on this someday and marvel at what we've been able to accomplish.

To view the whole podcast transcript, please click here.

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Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth is director of marketing and communications at Lehigh Business.