Plug in, Ponder or Pause? Dealing with Major Disruptions to Our Work

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to receive funding from IESE’s High Impact research initiative to study how global professionals manage their work. So I teamed up with Maïlys George as both of us have been fascinated by cross-cultural experiences, and especially how individuals manage their work and nonwork lives across borders. Our focus was on professionals based in their home countries who frequently travel internationally for work.

After conducting interviews with a diverse group of 30 global professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and upended our respondents’ lives. They were literally grounded, which was an extreme experience for professionals who are used to traveling a lot. It was a bittersweet moment for us: We felt for our respondents but were also excited because we had a natural experiment on our hands where we had just interviewed global professionals about how they navigated their work, only to face a major disruption to their ways of working. So we reached out to the same professionals again to understand how they would respond to such a disruption.

Navigating Identity Tensions During the Pandemic

By interviewing these professionals before and after the pandemic started, we captured their evolving identity narratives in real-time. This was important because we know from previous research that global professionals maintain and juggle multiple identities. Our study, recently published, revealed that the pandemic-induced disruptions were interpreted based on the identity tensions these professionals experienced before the pandemic. Depending on these tensions, they saw the pandemic as either a threat or an opportunity and responded accordingly. Two findings stood out for us in particular.

  1. Seeing Opportunity in Disruption

First, we were surprised to learn that a majority of global professionals interpreted the pandemic in a positive light—as an opportunity rather than a threat—despite the severity of the disruption.

a. Plugging in: Some professionals experienced tensions in how they related to coworkers before the pandemic. They may have felt too distinct from distant coworkers or struggled with cultural differences. These professionals saw the pandemic as an opportunity to plug in, or ease coworker tension by connecting through video conferencing and bonding better with coworkers. They rebalanced their relationships with distant colleagues.

b. Pondering: Others had felt ambivalent towards their work before the pandemic. When the pandemic-induced travel restrictions removed international travel from their schedules, they spent much more time in self-reflection, pondering their work identities and figuring out more deeply who they were and what they wanted to become.

  1. Pausing in the Event of Threat

The second particularly surprising finding was that not all respondents worked on their identities in response to the pandemic-induced disruptions. Instead, this third group of professionals who interpreted the pandemic as a threat—in a negative light—temporarily paused their identity work. This is surprising because scientific evidence so far has suggested that in turbulent times and in the face of unexpected events people normally work intensely on their identities. Pausing identity work is also counter-intuitive because extant research suggests that perceived threat always triggers active responses. It seems that investing in identity work during uncertain times may be costly when the disruption is viewed as a temporary crisis.

Broader Implications

Our findings have broader applications beyond the pandemic. They can help understand reactions to other major disruptions, like organizational changes, geopolitical crises, climate change, or technological disruption. For instance, managers can assess employees’ feelings and experiences before implementing changes and predict how these feelings might influence their perceptions of and responses to the change. This proactive approach can help ensure that changes are viewed positively. It will also help managers tailor the right support accompanying a change implementation.

For professionals, we encourage making time and cognitive space to reflect on how major disruptions might serve as opportunities for growth or for rebalancing work relationships.


Further reading

Reiche, B.S., & George, M.M. (2024). Plug in, ponder, or pause? How global professionals’ prior identity tensions affected their responses to pandemic-induced disruptions. Academy of Management Discoveries, 10(2): 192-223.

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