Since the arrival of the global pandemic in early 2020, millions of employees have found themselves in the middle of a workplace revolution. Remote work is on the rise in many industries. Masking and safety protocols have heightened conflicts and frustrations. And record numbers of Americans have left their jobs in search of more flexibility, better pay, improved work-life balance and a greater sense of meaning — a trend that has become known as “the Great Resignation” or “the Great Reshuffle.”
In the midst of so much change, how can leaders in the workplace create healthier cultures for their teams? For answers, Biola Magazine turned to psychology professor Laura Dryjanska, director of a new master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology. At such a significant time for so many businesses, hospitals, schools, churches and other organizations, Dryjanska said the fields of industrial-organizational psychology and positive psychology can offer leaders valuable insights into how organizations can flourish, prevent turnover and care for employees’ well-being. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There has been so much discussion over the past couple of years about the Great Resignation — this big spike in the number of people who are quitting their jobs, or switching careers or just reconsidering their life goals. What has stood out to you about this trend?
The Great Resignation has really shown us that people are reconsidering who they are. At the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020, so many people were worried, Will we even keep our jobs? What am I going to do, depending on how it all unfolds? I think at that point, a lot of people started to see that actually, I can root my identity in something else. People started to switch their priorities, discovering how great it is to be with your family, for example. In places like Southern California, where a lot of people just spent hours and hours per week driving to their workplaces and sitting in traffic, they realized, well, I could actually be with my family. They realized that work can look differently. Even as I talk to many of my neighbors, people who work in Los Angeles are saying they’ve switched into working in the office once a week, but some of their companies are now talking about working in the office twice or three times a week. And my neighbors are thinking about finding a new job where they can still be just once a week in the office, because it just makes such a huge difference. So, a big part of it is, yes, people realizing that work can be done differently, and they’re rooting their identity less in a specific company or workplace, but more maybe in their abilities, gifts, skills and other factors as well.
How should workplaces respond to these changing priorities?
Workplaces need to be agile. They need to be flexible. We’re in a place where it’s definitely a workers’ market, and organizations are competing for workers. Workplaces are realizing that things can and should be done differently. But change is hard. When it comes to organizational change, sometimes workers might suggest solutions, or reply to surveys, or say to their manager, “I think this is what we could do” — but then they feel like they’re not being heard. That lack of listening to workers, and the top-down procedures that used to work in the past, now they’re just not working so well. There should be maybe less talking and more listening on the part of organizations. When the world is changing so quickly, we really should try to respond to the workers, especially because it seems to be they’re in the advantage position right now.
What are some of the defining marks of a healthy work culture?
I’m a strong believer in positive listening. A healthy culture has to do with positive psychology and really being able to understand, what is it that people want? What is their stage in life? And not assuming that is always the same thing for everyone: I have a two-month-old, so I have different needs and desires right now; it will be different once he goes to school. Employers also need to take into account people’s personalities: whether they’re more outgoing and extroverted, enjoy travel, enjoy meeting new people — or not. So, it’s about really being sensitive to the situation and catering to people’s specific needs.
Something else is attention to spirituality — or if you want to be more general, just higher needs that people have, and a sense of connection and belonging at a workplace. A sense of being understood. Even so many non-Christian organizations are starting to realize the value of having a fellowship or an affinity group of people who have similar values or maybe struggles. This creates bonding, and helps people to feel, Why should I leave a workplace if I have so many people there who really get me? Organizations should be sensitive to that, wisely building these connections and allowing people to build these connections based on who they are. Being sensitive to the needs of workers and developing that sense of loyalty and social connectedness at a workplace certainly helps a lot.
Can you offer a couple of really practical things that individual leaders can do to improve the experience for their teams?
One thing is to assess what your strengths are. There are some official assessment tools, like StrengthsFinder, for example. What are your talents? What is it that God gave you that makes you uniquely you? What are your gifts? And with that, it’s important to be authentic. Be who you are. Don’t try to hide. Of course, we have to self-regulate and control our emotions. But at the same time, we all have our flaws, and sometimes, in a sensible way, we can share those with others. And especially in the areas that aren’t your strengths, it can make sense to delegate. If you know there is something that’s just a challenge for you, or you particularly dislike it, or just you’re not good at it, try to delegate. So, number one is be authentic. And in order to do that, really know yourself.
By the same token, try to really get to know the people that you work with. Don’t try to envision some type of a textbook, perfect situation. Ask, who are the people that God gave me to work with? What are their strengths? What are the things that they’re good at, that they want, their aspirations? And once you know them, engage them, use their talents.
Also, just try to be flexible, try to be agile as a leader. That’s something we need in organizations, but that’s something we also need for ourselves. We should have our plan. And we should also have a plan B. But if things go in a totally different way — especially lately with a lot of changes coming up — we should be able to really assess the situation and let go.
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen a big rise in remote work. Do you have any advice for teams with remote employees?
Absolutely. There’s a strong body of research about remote work, going back way before the pandemic. One fairly simple piece of advice is, for the sake of teams, either go all virtual with meetings — so, “this Tuesday we’re having a meeting and everyone’s on their computers” — or have everybody in person. There’s enough research evidence to tell us that when only a few are on Zoom and everyone else is in person, that really plays into exclusion. You won’t be able to catch some jokes. You weren’t there before the meeting when something happened.
For some organizations, it may make sense to have a virtual team — for those to whom this may be the best option — and then have another team that’s an in-person team, aligned as much as possible with people’s preferences. Virtual can be good. However, fully virtual would not be the best. Even if you have a fully online group or team, give people an opportunity to get together in person. Ideally it’s a time when everyone can be there in person, whether it’s once a month or once a week. How much differs, depending on the business and the organization, but definitely creating these intentional opportunities for people to be able to relate in person is important.
As Christians, how can our faith inform our understanding of well-being in the workplace?
I think it’s really important as a Christian to look at the fruit of the Spirit. How can I use it in the workplace? How can I refine it in the workplace? We should be patient, for example. We should be patient with circumstances, with people. How can I be patient? Well, it’s because I love God. And maybe in the moment, when things are really hard and I would really like to say something that’s not the most appropriate to someone, I can turn my attention unto God and just pray for patience, and it will come… It’s important to be sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the workplace. Even with small decisions, we can approach them prayerfully and realize that these are all opportunities for growth that God is giving us — not only as workers and leaders, but as human beings in general. Any type of challenges that arise are also an opportunity for us to grow closer to God.
Laura Dryjanska is an associate professor of psychology at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology, where she serves as program director for a new master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology. Her research interests include positive organizational psychology, migration, human trafficking and aging. She holds a Ph.D. from the Sapienza University of Rome.