We're in the midst of a transformation of the labor economy. Dubbed the "Great Resignation" by Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M, workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers (4 million in April alone, according to the U.S. Labor Department), leading to labor shortages and retention concerns for companies large and small.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the experience of being a worker in corporate America. Not only have we gotten used to the flexibility and comfort of working from home, our perception of the organizations we are part of, and our role in those organizations, has shifted drastically. Before the pandemic, being part of a corporation meant spending the majority of one's waking hours physically located "at" the corporation (buildings owned by the company).
Our membership in the company was made more real by our extended physical presence in the office. We socialized more casually with co-workers, we became attached to our workspaces, and we were subject to the behavioral norms and expectations of physically existing in a workspace dominated by the corporate culture. Spending time at the office helped solidify the part of our identity that we associate with being a member in the company. In other words, the more time we spend at work, following the norms and "fitting in" to the established way of behaving, the greater we come to think of ourselves as being an unseparable part of the organization. Being an employee of this company is part of who I am, and leaving the organization would represent an ending of that part of me (a partial ego-death), and I am wont to avoid that.
I'd argue that this reification of our "organizational membership identity" self-aspect is what enables companies to extract more value from their employees without fair compensation. By continually providing the physical environment where one's "identity as employee of the company" is activated continuously for hours every day, the employee begins to identify more and more as an employee, and leaving becomes more and more unthinkable.
When we started working in our homes, the influence of the company culture was stifled, and our corporate identities began to lose their exclusive control over our working hours. The line between "at work" and "not at work" was blurred, and we began to activate different self-aspects during work hours. Previously, when I was in the office, I almost always thought of myself as "company employee." Now, my working hours are punctuated with flashes of real life. Perhaps I spent time taking care of kids while working from home. Now, I activate my "parent" identity during working hours. This creates a new kind of interaction, where I think of myself as parent while I am working. The activities required by my work likely contrasts with my values that are most present while I am parenting. Previously, I would never mix my "parent" and "employee" self-aspect. Now, working from home, they become intertwined.
Or, perhaps, I have a guitar sitting in my room, that I strum when bored at work. Now my "musician" self-aspect becomes activated during work hours. The rapid context shift from playing music, to creating spreadsheets, may very well remind me how much I like playing music, and how little I like creating spreadsheets.
In addition, the social contexts of home further lead to the diminishing of one's company identity. In contrast to the office, the individual you come across at home do not likely care one iota about the particulars of a problem you may be facing at work. Interacting with family and friends at home provides a valuable non-company perspective that again, punctuates what was previously a continuously activated employee self-aspect. Giving your partner a hug during lunch reminds you that the hidden bug in your code at work isn't really that big of a deal.
So I'm arguing that the role of the company in our perception of ourselves has started to diminish, and will probably only continue to do so. Some companies have set deadlines for employees to return to work. For those companies looking to continue to exploit their workers for as much economic value as possible, this is an understandable move. The company wants to re-exert the influence it's culture once had on the employees. For many employees, however, the damage has been done.
So what does this erosion of our corporate identities mean? Both for us, as employees (or former employees), and for the organizations we work for?
For employees, it's good news. Our corporate self-aspects have begun to erode from their position as our primary self (in terms of the amount of time the self-aspect is activated).
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