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Reimagining a digital workplace

​COVID-19, and the subsequent lockdown, had an enormous impact on both personal and financial wellbeing. The lockdown saw an increase in stress levels, restlessness and nervousness as people were required to adapt - almost overnight - to new ways of managing work and family life. Our students, and the leaders and businesses with which we work, were no different as they faced the pressures of managing teams remotely and having to reimagine their services, offerings and relevance. 

In an effort to understand the impact and pressures on our students and clients at this time, we conducted a survey of the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s (GIBS’s) postgraduate students to determine what our business school could do better to support our students through the pandemic. Out of the more than 800 people asked to participate, 290 (34%) responded. These are their insights. 
The survey measured a number of aspects around the impact of the lockdown, including work-life balance, the empathy and understanding of employers, efficacy of engaging on digital platforms, and whether or not they believed a return to a pre-COVID way of doing things was likely. The results of the survey gave us valuable insights into how individuals are coping with life in a pandemic as well as what they require from their leaders and organisations to help them through this stressful time. 
While we will outline the more salient insights to be drawn from the survey later in this article, together with our colleague Dr Kerrin Myres, we’ve determined that our most important takeaways for executives are: 

  • Make use of smaller teams to encourage warm contact between employees and managers and to enhance trust.
  • As the lines between home and work are blurred, draw clear boundaries to protect the well-being of already stretched staff members. For example, no email or WhatsApp between 6pm and 6am on workdays and limit the length of online meetings, 45 minutes is an absolute maximum.
  • Use the flexibility that available technology gives to enhance collaboration, speed up decision making, and stimulate innovation.
  • Deliberately look for fresh ways to engage and include your best talent. Recognition doesn’t have to be only face to face.
  • Offer support for managers to find new ways to manage virtual teams in the online context. What worked before might not work now.
  • Accept that you are experimenting. You will make mistakes. The whole world is learning to adapt to a post-COVID world.
These top insights are, however, impacted by deeper subtleties which the survey unearthed and which require greater attention and focus by those in leadership positions, as well as those of us tasked with developing leaders for the future. 
Empathy during times of change
Home offices became a reality during the lockdown, which meant participants suddenly had to develop the ability to juggle work, children, and their needs, as well as their own studies. The challenge of keeping all these balls up in the air, without dropping them, increased the stress and anxiety levels of people across the board. Only 38% of respondents reported having found a reasonable work-life balance, leading to one of the most notable findings of the survey: the need for greater levels of empathy and understanding. 
Empathy, however, requires understanding. And this is best gained through listening. Therefore, it is clear that leaders and organisations must start listening more to the concerns of their people and should then allow these insights to influence decision making and strategy. This approach will, ultimately, enable leaders to realise legitimate win-win outcomes for everyone within an organisation. 
Breaking down walls, but setting up boundaries 
What is becoming clearer, as this new digital reality starts to dominate, is that all parties must start adhering to a new set of ground rules. Guidelines that allow for greater flexibility in working conditions while maintaining strict boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in this new age of digital interaction. One participant noted, “As my home has become my office there are no boundaries. There is an expectation from my employer that I will avail myself to respond to emails or complete reports in the evening. I’ve received emails at 19:30 requesting my urgent attention, and there is no respect for my personal time anymore.” Over the lockdown period, 71% of respondents claimed to have worked harder than normal. 
The need for boundaries also extends to peer-to-peer relationships. Many of the participants expressed concern over issues around accountability. Communicating digitally, for instance, does not enable people to pick up on the subtle cues others give off through their body language. What one would battle to hide from others when sitting across a table from them, is made more prevalent in a digital world where it is more difficult to read people. 
“Miscommunication is big and creates a lot of problems. People can’t read body language, so it creates tension. Trust is low. Teaching is extremely low, so growth is almost gone,” said one respondent. 
Another stated, “To manage people you have to trust more, else you end up checking up on them which is unproductive. Communication has escalated with no boundaries. I often find myself exhausted from all the emails, online meetings, and WhatsApps.”
Willingness to adapt is the game-changer
While our day-to-day experiences are becoming increasingly more digital, forcing radical change on organisations, the way we deal with these changes is decidedly human. Indeed, leaders who are winning in this environment are those who are not only more caring and mindful but who have built up a culture and appetite for change within their teams and structures and systems. This adaptability to change is both essential and inevitable, especially since the survey found that 72% of respondents did not believe that they would return to ‘work as usual’ post COVID-19. In fact, they felt overwhelming that their work environments would change to include a lot more digitisation of communication and work. 
While that may be the operational future, it still does not dilute the need for connection. Human connection. People are wired to connect face to face. Digital communication does not allow for the richness of the connections being made around the water cooler or during a tea break. This makes it harder – if not impossible – to run important projects over a digital platform where eye contact and body language are muffled. So while Zoom may enhance how business is done, it is doubtful that it will ever completely replace the need for people to work together in the same space. That said, 81% of respondents felt that digital platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams were effective tools for communication. 
The blended approach 
The new dynamics brought about by the pandemic will certainly result in a dramatic change to the ways in which organisations run their businesses. It will also change the way people want to learn and what they regard as effective skills and personal development journeys. 
Of those GIBS students surveyed, 68% called for a blended approach to learning. While students want to enjoy the value of being in a classroom and debating issues, they also want business schools of tomorrow to use technology to enhance their learning experience. It is likely that this blended approach will, in time, also be adopted by businesses. This may translate into a situation where businesses have employees coming into a shared workspace three of four times a week, but they continue to operate from home for the rest of the time. 
These are the first of many changes which will be asked of businesses and individuals in the months and years to come, and people are ready for it. The survey shows that people know that the changes we are seeing are going to be more permanent. The vast majority, 72%, believe they have become more resilient in the face of crisis, and finally they are calling on their leaders and organisations to reimagine the work environment going forward. 
To remain relevant business schools also need to adapt, to ensure that the leaders being molded for tomorrow are equipped to manage both pervasive change and the delicate balancing act required of finding their humanity in a digital world. 

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