a woman works at a laptop at her kitchen counter
Working from home during the spread of coronavirus, as this Seattle woman is doing, can be lonely, said Cristina Banks, a UC Berkeley expert on workplace culture. “What we’ve done through social distancing is break … social connections and basically scatter people to the wind,” she said. (AP photo by Ted S. Warren)
a woman works at a laptop at her kitchen counter

Working from home during the spread of coronavirus, as this Seattle woman is doing, can be lonely, said Cristina Banks, a UC Berkeley expert on workplace culture. “What we’ve done through social distancing is break … social connections and basically scatter people to the wind,” she said. (AP photo by Ted S. Warren)

Cristina Banks expresses the point without hesitation: The idea of working at home holds little appeal for her. Her professional life is centered on her office, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic requires her to work from home, she worries that her creativity will be disrupted, and that domestic chores will distract her.

But as the director of UC Berkeley’s Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, Banks’ insights about how we will work and how we will struggle during this global health crisis are informed by years of study. She’s given deep thought to why, even in the best of times, some offices function well, and others are dysfunctional.

headshot of Cristina Banks

Cristina Banks

In a recent interview, she spelled out a range of challenges that are arising in a time of social distancing, when millions of people in the United States and worldwide have been sent home to work. The technology makes it possible, she said, but the human connection is difficult to replace.

In this historic moment, work itself becomes an experiment , its shape shifting and adapting even as an organization tries to maintain its standards. To manage the risks, Banks says, the leaders of any enterprise, and its employees, need to consider some crucial questions:

“What do people need in order to maintain their connection … with the organization and with others from that organization? How can they continue to perform at their desired level of competence and not be thwarted by the circumstance?”

The Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces is a global research center, and its mission is to gather together science across disciplines about employee health and well-being. Banks is also a senior lecturer at the Haas School of Business, where she has taught organizational behavior and human resource management for 30 years .

[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Berkeley News : It’s a question so many people at the university, in California and, really, across the world, are asking themselves: How do you feel about working from home?

Cristina Banks: My office is where my work is. If I’m not there, I can only make part of it work, and that’s whatever is on my Google Drive. But it doesn’t mean that I have access to the papers — I’m still a paper person — or the books that are on my shelf or the people that I’m working with.

Working from home, it’s not assured that I could be working with them in the same way or with the material I have in the same way, because, you know, I’m not. Being the director of the interdisciplinary center, it’s not a job where it’s a bunch of repeatable tasks that I just have to get through, you know, 100 of them in a day and I’m done, and I go home. Like many people, my work requires thinking and stimulation and conversation.

A lot of it is about inspiration. And when I work at home, believe me, there’s so many things where I might look around and think, “Well, I need to water that plant. I need to put that load of wash in, and I need to go to the post office.” It’s just not an environment that’s conducive for me to do my work.

As you watch this health crisis unfold, as a scholar in the field of work and work environments, what questions does it raise for you?

There are basic human needs that are well-established, and one of those basic needs is the need to belong, or to have social connections. And as much as we try to have social connection by the telephone, or a cell phone, and through Zoom and other social networking platforms, that doesn’t necessarily have the same feel and sense of satisfaction as affiliating in person.

Social distancing makes things more difficult. What we’ve done through social distancing is break those social connections and basically scatter people to the wind. We’ve said, “Go ahead and do your work remotely.” And yet, we don’t know where people went, and we don’t know if they’re working. We don’t know if they’re focused on what the work was before.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about one’s ability to socially connect with others, which is so important for people’s basic life satisfaction — satisfaction of that need is a very important component of well-being. When you isolate people, then you run the risk of people feeling disconnected from others and having a sense of disengagement and isolation.

At work, the consequence could be more job dissatisfaction, both during this social distancing and even in the recovery period. Lower intrinsic motivation, because that comes from need satisfaction. And it could lead to people caring less about their connection to the institution.

Isn’t this also a security issue? An issue about whether people feel safe?

I’m interested in whether people will feel a sense of safety again — psychological safety and physical safety. When this particular coronavirus was emerging, the big question was: Who has it? Usually you can see an enemy by some physical characteristic, like a knife, a gun or maybe clothes. But here the virus could be transmitted by someone we love, or someone we care about, or somebody we bump into casually or just somebody riding on the bus. We don’t know where the danger is coming from.

And that is psychologically very stressful. So when people come back to work, are they going to feel safe again? Have they been desensitized to worrying about where the dangers are coming from? Those are two things I’m thinking about, both at-work disruption and the social disconnect, and then that feeling of psychological and physical safety.

A worker practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis works alone in a home dining room before two computer screens.

Across the United States and much of the world, millions of people have been assigned to leave the office and work at home to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 health crisis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lauren Russell)

If a person is the supervisor of a small unit or the owner of a small company or the head human resources for a big institution, how can they best plan for this forced separation, this time of change and uncertainty? How can all of us make the best of it?

The number one thing to consider is: What do people need in order to maintain their connection with the institution, with the organization and with others from that organization? How can they continue to perform at their desired level of competence and not be thwarted by the circumstance? The key pieces for workers are that they are able to continue to be satisfied in their job, even if they’re away from the worksite and are working independently or in isolation.

An obvious thing that comes to mind is that the organization has to work hard to build these social connections back and maintain them. Instead of letting people go and work remotely, and you don’t hear from them for a couple months, you actually have a schedule of regular check-ins. It’s maybe based on what we’ve learned about remote workers around the globe: It’s very important to have established check-in times and established events that people can count on to reconnect, either to share information or just to be social with each other in order to cement the idea that they’re still part of the organization.

The operative principle here is certainty and predictability. Have a conscious effort to connect people and maintain those connections. They can’t be arbitrary. You wouldn’t say, “We’ll check in once a month, because that’s what management wants to do.” You need to talk to the people and say, “What would make you feel like you’re still connected to everyone? And how would you like to interact?”

Then, management just has to make it happen with great diligence, with great discipline, so that you can recover as much of those good feelings of friendship and connection and caring and work productivity as you had before.

You mentioned the importance of establishing a work culture, even remotely, where people can do their best work. Why is this important? And how do we do it?

Competence is a basic human need, we’ve found. People need to feel competent in their jobs, which means that, because they know what to do, they’re able to exhibit that through the efforts that they make on a daily basis.

Stress comes when people are prevented from showing their competence and being able to accomplish tasks in the manner that they hold as effective. That’s more likely to happen when they’re remote and isolated. And that’s because, again, it’s very hard to find the people that you need to work with if you’re away from your office, or to find the things that you counted on in order to help facilitate your performance.

The management and leadership of the organization need to focus on what would support that confidence in a remote platform, on a remote basis. Part of this is establishing a set of policies with respect to accountability — returning phone calls, returning e-mail messages, responsiveness, access to resources and so on — so that productivity can be maintained. The more that gets in the way of people feeling competent and able to achieve what they need to achieve, the more likely that person is going to let go of their productivity.

There’s a danger of deep, decreased work motivation, decreased satisfaction and decreased productivity. I can already feel it among people. They’re just saying, “I’m going to go home and, you know, I’ll do what I can do, but if I can’t do it, too bad.” This is not a good attitude.

Imagine we’ve arrived at the time when the all-clear signals have been given, and we can all return to our offices. How can managers or organizations  reestablish constructive connections as people are coming back?

This is an important question. I realize that people are likely to be coming back with some baggage associated with this event. I mean, it’s not like it’s going to be inconsequential. Here’s an example: I’m teaching at the Haas School, with 30 students, undergraduates, and much of my course is interactive — group exercises in class, and speakers coming in and interacting with students, and so on. Now, I’m expected to conduct it virtually, and I’ve never done this before.

I’ve got to figure all this out as I do all the rest of my work in my other job. And the parallel is, every professor has a bigger burden, a bigger workload, a more frustrating experience. People are going to come back to work, and instead of saying, “Boy, that was a great experience! Now I know I can work virtually seamlessly without any consequence,” they’re going to come back and say, “Man, that was tough.”

Understanding how people might come back and have their reaction to this event, I think what might be important right off the bat is to help people talk about it, acknowledge it. We could say, “OK, what was the worst part for you. and what was the most frustrating thing to you?” And, you know, just let people vent.

But it’s not just venting. It’s having a sense of connection among people in their misery, if you will, a sense that people will have experienced similar things. And through their shared experience, though experienced separately, we can start building that cohesion back.

You know, there’s nothing like a threat or a bad experience that unites people. Instead of just saying, “OK, it’s over, let’s get back to work,” we should capitalize on this event as a way to build community and to build social cohesion.

People will want that. People will want to talk about it and want to share it and want to know that other people experienced it, even the frustrations. They can say, “OK, how would we do this differently in the future?”

They might decide, “Let’s establish a phone tree. Let’s have more regular check-ins or let’s have some policies that really provide good support. Let’s make these suggestions to the university officials, and maybe it’ll go smoother the next time we have a pandemic.”

And now, they’re working in a positive direction, and people can move on.

There’s probably a lot to be gained from this experience, even though it’s going to be rough in the interim.