Our pandemic-impacted work environment and the surprising effect of the default work setting
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
"...the default work environment has a massive impact on organizations and their participants."
In our article Sustainable Diversity in the post-pandemic world, we discuss workplace changes in the context of personality-related neurodiversity. We suggest the pandemic-impacted workplace is now a friendlier environment for introverts and more challenging for extroverts. Given the world is generally evenly divided between introverts and extroverts, this still means half the employees may experience unhappiness. Likely, it is the half that is more expressive about their unhappiness.
In fact, based on a 2021 Accenture work survey, including 9000 employees, they revealed:
42% of workers are thriving, experiencing energizing and optimistic feelings.
31% of employees are disgruntled, experiencing fatigued and pessimistic feelings.
The remaining 27% are somewhere in the middle.
From my experience, there is a subtle but important reason.
In the pre-pandemic office, extroversion (verb) was the default process. With introversion being a scheduled exception to the default process. People were always expected to be “on” for a work discussion and willing to divert attention. This is known as a collaborative work environment. For those naturally extroverted, this is great. The default is their friend. However, for an introvert (noun) this is challenging. Work interruptions may be considered more disruptive than collaborative. Introverts appreciate attention is a scarce and valuable resource. They may prefer internally-focused attention as a success enabler. Importantly, in the pre-pandemic world, the default process was not best aligned with an introvert’s personality.
In the pandemic-impacted “work from anywhere” (“WFA”) environment, introversion is the default. Meaning, collaboration and zoom meetings must be scheduled and introversion is the default outside the schedule. Thus, people are expected to work on their own in a potentially more introvert-friendly environment. While collaboration-based meetings may feel like they occur often, they are still a scheduled exception. One may decline a meeting or otherwise work around the meeting. To be fair, depending on where one is in the organizational pecking order, one may not feel like declining a meeting is appropriate. However, the option is certainly more available today than before. Also, this is assuming the WFA environment lends itself to reduced interruption. Certainly, those with young children may find this challenging. Be that as it may, from a business process standpoint, an introvert-friendlier workday is now part of the organizational default.
We recognize personality types like introvert and extrovert are both nuanced and experienced on a continuum. Some people experience that of an “adapted ambivert” in their life. Meaning, they find a personality middle ground as an adaptation for their working life. As discussed in our article Creativity - For Both Introverts and Extroverts, when a person is under stress, they tend to revert to their baseline personality. As such, our work environments should enable flexible choice, since it is a stressed situation when we need our people to perform at their best.
As a behavioral economist type, default environments fascinate me. I’ve come to appreciate the default environment has a massive impact on organizations and their participants. The employer provided default “choice architecture” impacts an employee’s workplace engagement and will drive employee fulfillment and productivity.
As our new, pandemic-impacted work world is revealed, work environment-based neurodiversity should be considered for all employees. A more holistic, neurodiversity-friendly approach will help all employees reach their potential. Work environments may evolve to allow employees to choose and change their desired work environment. At some point in the future, health safety will not require WFA and an introvert-based default. In my view, employers must clearly disclose their default environment. That way the employee knows what to expect. Further, enlightened employers may ultimately enable employees to choose from a range of flexible work environments along a neurodiversity-friendly (introvert/extrovert) continuum. Those environments are intended to be adaptable to the changing needs of the employee AND the work situation. Flexibility is needed because our neurodiversity is dynamic. This is not only true because of neurodiversity differences between people in the same work group, but even for the same person over time.
Unfortunately, the initial rollout of hybrid work environments, in some cases, has the worst of both worlds. These initial hybrid work policies are characterized as a restrictive, department-focused environment requiring the employee to be locked into an on-sight and off-sight schedule.
“Thou shalt extrovert from Tuesday to Thursday and thou shalt introvert on Monday and Friday.”
Such initial hybrid policies have little commitment to the fluid neurodiversity needs of the employee. This will just cause employees to seek an environment meeting their neurodiversity needs. A clear, singular default environment is likely superior to a “worst of both worlds” hybrid environment. As an example, some employers have already committed to a permanent WFA policy. Effectively, they have committed to an introvert-friendlier work environment default.
Being purposeful in choosing default work environments or flexible environments is both challenging and incredibly important. Within the previously mentioned article, we discuss several implications for the pandemic-impacted work world. We provide work flexibility considerations for the work environment of the future.
In an April, 2021 Accenture article titled The future of work: A hybrid work model, the author observes:
“Responsible leaders must move beyond physical location to shape the future of work by giving people resources tailored to their needs.”
This suggests the future of work will allow a flexible work environment. Flexibility characteristics include:
A technology-enhanced environment enabling employee success regardless of neurodiversity or other employee-specific needs.
A culture encouraging teams to work together, regardless of location.
A culture enabling mentorship without being physically together.
A culture encouraging physical proximity when it makes sense for the client or project need.
A culture requiring leaders to step out of their neuro-specific default and enable the success of all, regardless of their neurodiversity.
These environmental considerations enable wider choice consistent with the fluid neurodiversity needs across ALL employees.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it is becoming clear, employees are expecting more work place flexibility. According to a July 2022 article by The Economist:
“Industries with jobs that cannot be done from home are falling out of favour with recent graduates.”
A study by ManpowerGroup, a recruitment company, suggests an inverse relationship between talent shortages and flexible working policies.
“The sectors which are either less able to offer remote work or have been slower to embrace it-including construction, finance, hospitality and manufacturing--have faced some of the biggest skills gaps for all types of job.”
A natural follow-on question is: How do we nudge employers to create the proper work environment choice architecture for all neurodiversity types? The good news is, the pandemic disruption provides the opportunity for employers to reconsider their work environment with a fresh lens. There is likely a flexible work environment business case (lower attrition, lower training costs, and higher productivity) that needs to be revealed and validated for each company. In the mean time and for many employers, the flexible work environment business case is being revealed by employees voting with their feet.