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Learning to Live in the Social Distancing World: A Behavioural Perspective

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Learning to Live in the Social Distancing World:
A Behavioural Perspective
19th April 2020 (2056 Words)
Ramesh Bhat, Dean SBM, NMIMS University, Mumbai (
Sunil Maheshwari, Professor, IIM Ahmedabad (
Coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives. Many countries, including India, adopted
measures of “social distancing” or “physical distancing” to handle the outbreak of COVID
19. The intervention led to limiting the size of gatherings, the closing of institutions and
workplaces, travel restrictions. Many organizations adopted a virtual way of doing their
businesses. The shutdown of economies compelled the dispersed employees to form online
teams, connect customers, engage with supply chain networks using the internet or phone to
ensure continuity of their operations and activities. In the quickest possible way, the
interacting teams formed the ground rules of interaction and ways of engaging, most of them
yet to formalize. As we move to post attenuated COVID 19 phase, the new ways of working
in this “new normal” will evolve in terms of structure, systems, and processes leading to the
shaping of a new culture.
Given the transmission dynamics of this disease and its mutation behaviour, experts suggest
that the risk of coronavirus is going to stay with us for some time in the future. As the
restrictions are lifted, the coming months are going to remain volatile and living with fear.
For organizations, this creates a challenge for managing our work at the individual level, at
the team level, and organization level. Physical meetings, networking, social meets, forum
discussions, seminars, which was a norm in the pre-COVID period, may see everything going
virtual way. Organizations will need to learn new ways of doing business, evolve robust
structures, firm up processes, and develop a culture of working in new normal. The limited
experience of organizations going digital, holding virtual meetings, using mobile technology,
using various platforms to ensure engagement will guide us in developing the new reference
to manage organizations, teams, and individuals working in the distance economy. In some
sense, some see it as “death of proximity.” The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the
signs of unease and fear affecting our attitudes. What will be the implications of these for our
businesses? Understanding of how to go about working in the distance world is critical. All of
us need to learn how to work in this new normal, what are the ways, and how to handle the
shocks it will create. We have never faced this situation in our lives, and there is no
experience of how we will perform in the distance world. Are we resilient to face this
situation? Some preparation always supports, some understanding will always help.
Learning to live with a distance is the new norm
Physical distance is there to stay for at least a few years. Intrinsically people have realized
their interconnectedness and defining new ways of getting connected. They also know that
others' wellbeing is in the interest of self. People are going to reiterate the need for distances
and practice at workplaces to protect themselves and others. This norm will change the way
offices are going to be organized and the way meetings are going to be conducted. While
being in the office, the majority of the meetings would perhaps still happen in the virtual
mode. Joint exercises for team building and trust would be redefined.
Principles of operant conditions in the distance world
B F Skinner, in 1938 in a controlled experiment, demonstrated that the best way to
understand behaviour is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. Pleasant
consequences induce repetitive behaviour, and unpleasant consequences discourage a repeat
of behaviour. In the emerging scenario, rewards, and punishment to promote distance
behaviour will institutionalize.
There would be hardships to employees having limited office spaces owing to physical
distances. Media, Government, and peers will continue to be attentive to them and show
sympathy for the difficulties of these people. This continuous attention and sympathy would
act as reinforcement to live in those difficulties. The reinforcement of this would be further
strengthened by organizational practices of work at home, welfare measures, and
uncomfortable social situations. In the emerging workplaces, there would be more work for
retained employees, and a large population may face the difficulty of not having productive
employment. Automation will further accentuate this.
Preparing for the distance world
Physical distances will bring new challenges in organizing the workplaces. Business
organizations will find it tough to create additional office space for employees. It would be
essential to identify roles that could be executed from home. Most of the sales,
administrative, and accounts activities could be executed from home. The organization would
necessarily require to put better security and control measures in place. In manufacturing,
there would be more automation. Retail will further gravitate towards e-commerce leading to
higher employment in gig economy and reduction in traditional employment.
Ensuring motivation, commitment, and monitoring of such employees would remain a
challenge in the emerging conditions. Coordination of people in these conditions would
remain a challenge. Given the hardship around, people would learn to be frugal in their daily
lives, which will further dampen the demand. Organizations would see a shift in the way the
meeting is organized. Owing to the difficulty in coordination, there would a shift towards
"small is beautiful." Large organizations would create smaller business units. Such a
structural shift would help in gaining the speed of decision making.
How to deal with the new psychology of distance living
Emerging social and environmental factors will be certainly influencing people’s feelings and
behaviour. Such physical distances would slowly reflect in the distance in social
relationships. Such social distance may get reflected in the lower comfortable working of
members within the group and between groups. The attitude of people towards others will
undergo significant change. Such social distance will further strengthen the need for physical
distances. Social distance may create psychological distances between people. Incidences of
procrastination would increase.
Organizations will have to find ways to encourage physical distances without impacting the
social relationship and psychological wellbeing. It would be essential to strengthen the
welfare measure, including counselling. Organizations would be expected to develop
simulations that could sensitize and train people to be effective in the emerging world.
Employees need to learn to be physically and socially distant yet emotionally closer if they
have to achieve a common goal. Organizations need to create opportunities for such
supportive behaviour that needs to be monitored and encouraged. It will help if organizations,
society, and the Government create forums for emotional and psychological support to people
in distress.
In the emerging scenarios, old heuristics and assumptions will not remain valid for many
businesses. Leadership will have to remain careful in decision making to avoid biases owing
to their past experiences and commitments that they might have made in good times. The
ongoing commitment of resources would need a fresh evaluation without any "sunk cost
bias" in decision making. It will be helpful if an independent team evaluates all the on-going
projects before committing additional resources.
Regularly new surprises would be experienced in the emerging scenarios. Organizations will
need to cope up with them by committing additional resources for any contingencies.
Leadership will have to build trust at all levels so that people could share their ideas,
observations, and feelings in the new scenario. Such sharing will be an important deciding
factor for survival in the VUCAF world.
The roles of people would be changing fast. Organizations will have to find ways to develop
new competencies to execute those new roles effectively. Leadership would have a major
challenge in coordinating the efforts of these people. Complete psychological, physical, and
social fitness would be essential for leaders. Organizations would be required to commit
resources for fitness at all levels in the organizations.
Nudging the behaviours in the distance world
Nobel laureate Richard Thaler suggests that people will need nudges for decisions that are
difficult and rare, for which they do not get prompt feedback, and when they have trouble
translating aspects of the situation in terms that they can easily understand. Post attenuated
COVID 19 world will see people facing difficult and rare situations and making decisions
under these circumstances. A lack of prompt feedback will characterize these situations.
Communication and developing an understanding will be a priority. In such situations,
organizations can use nudges to encourage better decisions making and pushing the
behaviour of employees in desired directions. This has to happen at all three levels:
individual, teams, and organization. For organization it will important first to understand the
underlying behavioural mechanisms and barriers and then develop interventions to target the
desired behaviour. At the same time, organization need be conscious of the fact that everyone
is affected by behavioural barriers emanating from self-control, cognitive ability, loss
aversion, self- and social image and social norms, and biased beliefs (see Box). Working in
the distance world with high dependence on digital mechanisms will aggravate many of these
barriers. The organizations can effectively use various nudges to alleviate the intensity of
these barriers. Nudges could be developed for the following:
Distancing nudges: Creative nudges could be developed to prompt desired behaviour of
maintaining physical distance at the workplace. For example, foot prints on the floor with
messages in the office would be helpful in maintaining physical.
Use of Masks nudge: For example people can be nudged by pictures of family wearing masks
with message of care.
Nudge for social belonging, identity activation and mindset nudges to improve self-confidence,
Nudge for boosting skills to alleviate self-control problems
Box: Nudge Toolbox
Common Behavioural Barriers May Intensify in Post Covid 19 Attenuated World
Preferences biases give rise to self-control problem and this will amplify in social distancing
world. This includes tempting to do something else than what is required leading to poor
decisions, and priorities.
Cognitive ability
Affecting quality of decision making, ability to explore options in a given situation, decide on
what is important very critical in complex choice decisions, heuristics may fail.
Loss aversion
General preference to avoid losses than gains of the same amount. This bias leads to a strong
aversion to downside risk (likely to be significant in post attenuated COVID 19 world) and has
implications for decisions making.
Default option
The prevalent empirical observation that people tend to stick to defaults. This may lead to not
paying attention to details/options, poor attention affecting desired behaviours
Self- and social
image and social
People are concerned about how they are perceived and may focus on preserving favourable
self-image and social image. This may force people to make decisions that are less optimal and
which may conflict with the desired goals. Actions are also motivated by reputational concerns
and social pressure.
Biased beliefs
Overconfidence and projection bias fall into this category. These biases may get inflated in the
distance world.
Illustrative list of Nudges
Defaults: change defaults has been found a powerful tool
Framing: the framing of information may debias a behaviour
Deadlines: self-control problem may lead to procrastination and deadlines may serve as a
commitment device
Goal setting: goal setting is another type of commitment device
Reminding: targeting reminders have been found having an impact on intended behaviours
Team comparison nudges using relative performance feedback may direct behaviour of
people to adhere to team norms and improves overall performance
Boosting skills to alleviate self-control problems
Distancing nudge/ mask nudge/caring nudge to ensure safety and well-being of individuals
and teams
Support nudges
Information about behaviour and ability: enabling the employees to assess their ability and
behaviour and providing support/resources
Sharing costs/benefit information improves decision making in desired directions
Peer-group manipulation: involves a restructuring of the choice environment to facilitate
peer interaction which may improve a sense of social belonging
Assistance: providing one-to-one assistance and helping them to do what they are not able
to do help in overcoming behavioural barriers.
Social belonging
Sharing the achievements and career progression of senior people may improve aspects of
social belonging, celebrating small successes
Identity activation through story telling about the struggles and challenges people face and
how they handled it. Using messages such as “we know you are the kind of person who
maximises your and teams potential” and focusing on values
Introducing growth mind-set ideas in feedback such changing messages from praise of
performance outcome to praising effort provided, mindset nudges to improve self-
confidence and self-image
Created by authors from various sources
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