Reflections on a Pandemic: Place, Relationships, and Values

About the author: Jon Briscoe is Professor of Organizational Behavior at Northern Illinois University. You can contact him at jonbriscoe@niu.edu

The last several months have been transformational not just for health, education, the environment, business, and families, but careers as well.   Many in the workforce were forced to work from home in ways that proved unexpectedly possible if absolutely surprising.  Of course, others were forced economically or felt obligated to work in occupations that were dangerous such as healthcare and other occupations that were deemed essential.  These conditions are not yet past tense in most of the world.

The United States has been fortunate in having the resources and abilities to develop and/or procure vaccine.  This has allowed a brief window into how people—at least vaccinated people in the United States—are transitioning into a new normal and what priorities are being identified and juggled.

It occurred to me that the brain and its process for removing waste might be a good metaphor for what many are going through.  In the last decade Maiken Nedergaard and colleagues discovered and named the “glymphatic” system that the brain uses to expunge the brain’s toxic waste.  Accumulation of such waste is thought to be responsible for disorders including Alzheimer’s disease.  Another key discovery was that sleep dramatically hastens the waste removal process.

In some ways, the pandemic has been like a deep sleep.  And while not everyone has been unfortunate, or fortunate enough as subjective the case may be, to spend more time at home, many have been “forced” to reconcile their customary work realities to new ones.  A middle-aged woman in my Executive MBA class last month mentioned to me that she noticed the blossoms on a beautiful tree in her neighbor’s yard for the first time while working at home, even though she has lived there for several years.

Then last week while on a river excursion in Utah in (the Western United States) I met a young couple from New York City.  In the drama of the pandemic, they had decided to move to Salt Lake City because they both liked to ski, and could buy a much less expensive home there than they could afford in New York City.  They were in tech.  Naively I asked where they worked (geographically) in the Salt Lake Valley.  “From home” came the answer.

A criticism of the “new career” has been that it is only for the elites.  But for the time being blue-collar and skilled labor are making and receiving demands of their employers as labor shortages persist and employers seem to be able to receive their demands.  Certainly these conditions will not last, but the whole chapter is a rare glimpse at a time that has almost stood still and offered a reset as people juxtapose what they want to leave behind permanently and what they hope to add to their careers in the post-pandemic reality.

Based upon my observations only, and not scientific study, I see three things that people are examining:  place, relationships, and values.

Place has never mattered to so many ever before in modern working life.  Until recently, many of us did not feel like we had much of a choice where (and to a degree how) we worked.  Suddenly pants or dresses became optional, sometimes to the detriment of careers!  But now place is everything.  Many people are quitting rather than going back to the employer’s workplace, content to develop a new line of work or find a more flexible employer.  Others greatly miss in person collaboration that came with the traditional workplace.  The changing Venn diagram of home and work has brought problems too, as addictions more expressed at home trail the employee returning to the workplace.

What can’t be debated is that place(s) has become more important and is now a tangible and more negotiable part of the psychological contract between traditional employers and employees.  It is understudied in our field.  It brings challenges to establishing and maintaining organizational culture, but also allows us to collaborate with people who would otherwise be unwilling to be available as partner.

Relationships have undergone change.  A colleague at work who is an extravert does not feel satisfaction communicating via online video.  She misses her students and life does not feel the same.  For introverts the pandemic has felt like an old friend they did not know they had!  They can pick and choose their verbal and visual interactions and turn video off as desired.  Still, even they found themselves oddly missing taken for granted interactions and hallway conversations.

Some relationships became more caring, more vulnerable and more nurturing, as colleagues and family became more threatened physically and socially.  There has been a positive rawness of sympathy and care evident.  It must be said that differences have also driven a rawness of conflict and negative emotion in cases.

One thing that is clear to me is that community is not going away just because we are not always meeting in person.  A few years ago, I participated in a study with Alessandro Lo Presti and Sara Pluviano[1] and somewhat surprisingly we found that freelancers were more likely to develop professional commitment than their traditional employee counterparts.  Before that, in an article with Lisa Finkelstein[2] I found that protean and boundaryless employees—those who are more likely to base their career on their own priorities and make more autonomous career moves– had no less affective commitment than others.  In my opinion, there is no reason to believe that people will stop needing or desiring the company of others (whether virtually or physically) as our workplaces undergo monumental change hastened by the pandemic.  The changing nature and form of these relationships is an area worthy of ongoing study.

I find that Values are most clarified under threat.  Certainly, the Covid 19 Pandemic has threatened our values both at home and at work.  At work our ability to interact with others in person, sometimes on projects that would ideally benefit from in-person presence was at times lost due to safety protocols that prevented it.  At the same time, being required to work at certain physical locations could have implications for our family’s health if doing so risked bringing the virus home

I think there is a great “sorting out” happening where people are picking and choosing which values they want to make sure are expressed and protected in their career.  The values will be some combination of work and private, and traditional and emergent.  This is a tumultuous time, but it strikes me also that it is very healthy to sort out these tensions and opportunities.

I have argued elsewhere[3] that values are the ultimate tool to manage sustainable careers.  Values change more slowly and can be used to drive a variety of decision across and within specific career chapters.  Employers who are responsive and appeal to the employee’s values will find that their flexibility will bring more loyal and engaged employees.

To conclude, place, relationships and values all integrate into a fourth collective dimension—identity.  The pandemic has hastened a time where a new career for many of us is being amalgamated.  This integration of place, people and values all hinge upon identity.  Who do we want to be and why (values)?  Where do we want to be (place)?  Who do we want with us in this journeying (relationships)? 


[1] Lo Presti, A., Pluviano, S., & Briscoe, J. P. (2018). Are freelancers a breed apart? The role of protean and boundaryless career attitudes in employability and career success. Human Resource Management Journal, 28(3), 427-442.

[2] Briscoe, J. P., & Finkelstein, L. M. (2009). The “new career” and organizational commitment: Do boundaryless and protean attitudes make a difference?. Career development international.

[3] Briscoe, J. P. (2015). Educating students for sustainable careers: In the classroom and beyond. In Handbook of research on sustainable careers. Edward Elgar Publishing.

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