Wellbeing and time structuring of remote workers during “the 2020/2021 plague”: a contribution by Dr. Maria Naciti

Dr. Maria Naciti, Organisational Consultant

The recent Pandemic, an event that took us by surprise at a time when “man” had the feeling of mastering events, of controlling the future, has generated a rapid change of the major paradigms. For each of us, and with different degrees of intensity, certain certainties collapsed and we had to explore new ways of living our daily lives, studying and working. We have also learned quickly from the area of digitization to make contact with “the other” and the outside world still possible. The pandemic has certainly had an accelerating function on digital learning for all of us. Of course, all this raises some doubts: is contact with the virtual and digital world an opportunity or, as some currents of thought raise, is it a constraint and could it become a problem? Physical distance is relational distance, how much do we need presence, physical contact, what are the consequences of the absence of contact and how is this connected to the world of work? In this article, I want to focus on the concept of well-being of organizational roles that manage their activities remotely with a specific point of view or lens that is that of time structuring. How does time structuring change between working at home and working in presence? How does a different structuring of time in the digital age somehow impact people’s well-being and generate Technostress?

When I deal with organizational change or follow roles individually, one of the aspects I observe to better understand the “world” of the other and check the state of well-being, is how people structure their time during work: they have time for reflection, they focus passionately on their activities, they offer themselves to authentic exchange with colleagues, they chase activities without breathing, they have large spaces to complain about how things are not going, etc…. 

So I want to apply the same principle to remote work in this period; remote work that is not, to be clear, smarworking or agile work from any location, at sea as in the office or at home and that is normally managed with a percentage of presence in the office anyway. 

The individual, organizational roles and organizational cultures themselves, seen from the perspective of how they structure their time can be “explored” from how they “mix” the following 6 ways:

  1. Retreat or Isolation: this is time for “retreat”, time for dialogue with self. One can withdraw physically and also psychologically. Extreme withdrawal is often an indication of a malaise in contact with the outside world or context.
  2. Rituals: allows people to communicate without excessive involvement or satisfaction. E.g.: Hello, how are you? – Great, and you? Pretty good. – See you soon!
  3. Pastimes: it refers to the time dedicated to parties, events, social contacts that allow people to exchange ideas, receive and give stimuli, meet each other, confront each other even if not necessarily in a “close” and authentic form. They are experiences that allow people to get to know each other and to define the degree of a possible deeper knowledge later. 
  4. Activities: these are based on a series of individual and/or collective actions that allow people to achieve goals. 
  5. Psychological games: these are exchanges between people, characterized by repetition and ambiguity, enacted through childish strategies even in adulthood and at work; they can create discomfort, potential conflict and devaluation of self or context. 
  6. Intimacy: this is a profound way of structuring time and has to do with a human contact that generates emotions or feelings such as empathy, affection, deep sharing. It is a dimension of time that opens up space for authenticity and for being oneself with “the other/others”. It is a “time” of profound well-being.

It is clear that in a functioning organization (and the same is true for roles and individuals) all 6 modalities are present but most of the time is devoted to activity. In some cases I witness spaces of intimacy between individuals and the two important presences, in the mix of the six elements, reassure me because they indicate a good state of well-being of the organization and the roles themselves. 

In my recent experience as a consultant, counselor and trainer working remotely in organizational settings and in times of pandemic, I have naturally investigated the structuring of time and have witnessed, from my perspective, two different phases. 

A first phase, at the beginning of the pandemic, in which people tell of a time of important activity but also of sharing, solidarity even if at a distance, intimate exchanges “on feeling” and certainly less space for pastimes and rituals that still have their own need to exist, as they allow people a dimension of “knowledge” without excessive involvement but “safe” and with the prospect of possible “deepening and proximity”. I also find the “sense” and truthfulness of storytelling in the learning process and approach to training: reflecting, listening, sharing and learning. To put it in transactional analytical language, authentic exchanges rich in “nourishment” despite the distance. I wonder if these exchanges also had a “reparative” function after the great trauma of the pandemic and the lockdown.

A second phase, I would say from September to the present, in which I have noticed great differences both in people’s accounts of the use of their time at work and in their approach to training.

People tell of a pressing work from home, between meetings, communications and operations. There is a lack of space for coffee and conversation, work meetings but at the same time convivial meetings such as events, business lunches, etc. (rituals and pastimes).

The working hours at home are dilated, there is no longer a separation, there is no opportunity to deepen professional relationships.

Moreover, due to the pressing rhythms and “this hyper-connectedness”, there is less and less space for deeper and more empathic communication (intimacy). (intimacy). What is missing is the overall vision, the “seeing ourselves as a whole”, “the presence of bodies” as Recalcati would say, which is always potential. 

Also in this case I find “the story” in the learning process: people arrive and one perceives a hyperconnection (they tend to write emails during the learning sessions, the times of individual reflection and mutual exchange are less intense and more hurried). During sessions, I need to remind people repeatedly of the rules of the game (the setting for insiders) and remind them of the importance of reflection time. Bringing people back to a more varied, optional and dedicated use of their time, even if only for a few hours, often has a function of new acquisition of awareness for which I am often grateful at the end of the course.

So, are people today at risk of technostress? Of course, this is a rhetorical question because the same answer should be the result of an exploration and an investigation far more in-depth and complex than what we can do today and I also assume that the answers could be different from each other, depending on individuality, personal stories, family context, organizational and social.

It is certain that good time structuring has a profound impact on well-being; we cannot live and work sustainably (with quality of health, well-being and with productivity) without a variety of ways in which we use our time. There can be no lack of moments of “intimacy” and deep nourishment, even in the professional sphere; there can be no lack of rituals and pastimes that ensure a certain degree of “certainty” and stability; there can be no lack of “spaces for retreat” and therefore of contact with oneself, of reflection, a space that is coveted and sought after, when there is awareness, in a phase of hyperconnection.

The most recent research and surveys give us a not entirely reassuring picture regarding the needs and symptoms of individuals and organizational roles today: 

– Two out of three workers suffer from burn out, or 69 percent of workers, 20 percent more than in the months leading up to the lockdown (Source: Monster.com- September 2020)

– Since the start of the pandemic among more than 2,000 employees, 28.3% report difficulty concentrating, 20% report taking longer on a task, 14.7% report thinking, deciding, and reasoning more laboriously, 12.4% report taking on challenging tasks, and 11.8% report juggling tasks and responsibilities. (Source: statista.com, December 2020)

– 1 in 3 people have anxiety depressive symptoms during this pandemic period. Survey: SINPF, Italian Society of Neuro Psychopharmacology 

– There is not only an increase in anxious-depressive symptoms but also a difficulty in accessing treatment services. In 2020 the World Heath Organization promotes the campaign “The Mental Health Coalition” given the difficulty of access to mental health services for all people going through stress due to the pandemic and the social and work consequences.

Statistical data, sample surveys, and research bring out from a background that would seem homogeneous an image that appears to me today as “a tangled skein” where the only clear thing is the emergence of intertwined needs that have to do with “taking care”, with the structuring of time, with the awareness of a “new normal” that is still uncertain, with the traumatic event of a pandemic, with the loss of control over one’s future, with a hyperconnection that can become technostress. Well, where to start and where the boundary between the different elements lies is still in the making. 

It is certain, however, that today more than ever listening to oneself and others, awareness of one’s own needs and the search for a plurality of options to satisfy them, the ability to ask for help, the RESEARCH always and everywhere, are confirmed as the “main paths” to explore “the threads” and “create meaning” within a “tangled skein”.

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