We Know More Than We Can Zoom: Challenges for Young Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

We Know More Than We Can Zoom: Challenges for Young Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Anouk Mols, Yosha Wijngaarden, Imke Greven, Marloes van Wijnen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-2364-6.ch006
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Measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic forced many young professionals to work from (often small and sometimes shared) homes. On the basis of in-depth interviews in the Netherlands, this chapter aims to unpack how working from home in times of COVID-19 affects the whole personhood of young knowledge workers. Three important insights are provided. First, when it comes to around boundary sculpting practices, many respondents' boundary negotiations between personal and professional spheres entail personal, collective, temporal, and spatial borders. Second, interpersonal connections prove to be of vital importance because a lack of face-to-face interactions not only causes a lack of interpersonal contact and emotional connection to colleagues, but also a lack of tacit knowledge. Third, additional spheres like the public sphere are crucial for providing motivation and inspiration. This research shows that working from home can be detrimental to the whole personhood of young professionals.
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In the early 2020s, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed the work practices for large groups of workers within the Western world and beyond. Where millions of people set their alarms in the early mornings, ran their errands, and commuted to work almost synchronously, the measures to halt the pandemic also halted their collective behaviour in offices, classrooms, and workplaces. Instead, they mutually attuned to each other using digital means, working from their home offices, kitchens or even bedrooms, switching from cacophonous Zoom meetings to stifled solitude in seconds. The measures to stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading have harmed mental well-being and increased feelings of loneliness globally (Hu & Qian, 2021). Forced working from home affects workers’ personhood and household dynamics. For instance, people can experience stress from the collapsing of boundaries between private and professional contexts, or, in other words, their home and work (Schieman et al., 2021). Moreover, enforced working from home can reduce productivity and cause feelings of isolation (Waizenegger et al., 2020). And how do people find the essential inspiration and motivation for their work when there is little to see beyond their houses’ walls?

While researchers have studied the implications of working from home in times of COVID-19 for mothers or caregivers (Hjálmsdóttir & Bjarnadóttir, 2021), couples (Qian & Hu, 2021), students (Elmer et al., 2020), and precarious workers (Han & Hart, 2021), other groups have received less academic interest. One of these groups is young professionals. Young professionals are usually not burdened by demanding family responsibilities, child rearing or assisting in their childrens’ online education. Yet, considering their budding careers and often relatively small-scale way of living (in solitary apartments or shared environments), they face challenges of their own. Their position in the labour market transformed from being a starting professional as part of a physical workplace to being an individual in a makeshift work environment as part of a digital team.

This transformation brings insecurity, alienation from the organisation, a dependence on digital communication platforms, a lack of inspiration and motivation to build a career, and halts interpersonal connections and opportunities. Moreover, the alienation from collective spheres caused by social distancing accelerates a trend of individualisation which is characterised by a decreasing sense of community (Faludi & Crosby, 2021). To study the precarious and challenging situation for young professionals who are forced to work remotely, this chapter poses the question: How does working from home in times of COVID-19 affect the whole personhood of young knowledge workers? Looking at the whole personhood means taking not only work and private contexts into account, but all spheres of life, and how these interact and intertwine. Specifically, this chapter poses three sub questions: 1) how do young professionals sculpt the boundaries between their private and professional spheres, 2) how do they seek to connect with their professional contacts from their – lockdown induced – private spheres, and 3) how do they cope with the lack of other spheres (e.g. the public realm) when working from home?

This chapter focuses specifically on the tensions that emerge out of the enforced working from home in times of COVID-19 which blurs the boundary between personal and professional contexts (Clark, 2000; Mols & Pridmore, 2021; Nippert-Eng, 1996), impedes the exchange of (tacit) knowledge (M. Polanyi, 2009 [1966]), and requires young professionals to retain the energy and inspiration to build and sustain a career without being able to draw upon connections to others (cf. Bhansing et al., 2018; Collins, 2020). This research takes the socio-economic context of working from home into account and follows Wood et al.’s (2019) integrated approach to K. Polanyi’s notion of embeddedness by zooming in on interpersonal relations and experiences while considering how platform economies thrive on the commodification of labour and data (Grabher & König, 2020).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Whole Personhood: Whole personhood is the full human experience, in which all (societal, personal, micro, and macro level) spheres have their place, but also compete for time and attention. A whole person has the agency to balance these spheres and to reach their own personal human potential.

Codified Knowledge: Codified knowledge refers to explicit forms of knowledge that are formal and systematic – and that can be conveyed over large distances and stored in various types of media.

Motivation: Motivation refers to being energised or activated to do a certain activity. It is influenced by contextual factors, such as cultural and social environments.

Boundary Work: Building on the work of Nippert-Eng, boundary work refers to practices to create, manage, and adjust the boundaries between different life spheres, like work and personal contexts.

Tacit Knowledge: A more intangible form of knowledge that consists of technical skills and know-how, and of beliefs and knowledge that people take for granted.

Public Sphere: Described by Habermas in 1971, the public sphere is the place where public debate happens and where people are exposed to new ideas and developments.

Knowledge Workers: Knowledge workers can be seen as people whose work is based on the production of knowledge, information processing, and problem solving. Knowledge workers are sometimes also referred to as white collar workers.

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