Lecturer in International HRM University of Edinburgh Business School
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Two ways to foster little acts of citizenship during a global pandemic

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Recent research from the University of Edinburgh Business School has uncovered two key ways to motivate employees to go beyond ‘the call of duty’. In this article, Dr Maryam Aldossari, Dr Sara Chaudhry & Moomal Unar explore how nurturing these organisational citizenship behaviours could be what ensures your business survives in a highly volatile market.

21st Dec 2020
Lecturer in International HRM University of Edinburgh Business School
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A key implication of the global pandemic has been the near universal transition to flexible working arrangements, specifically working from home. This has resulted in some employees experiencing higher levels of stress and burnout (because of juggling work with childcare responsibilities) as well as social isolation (given reduced peer-to-peer interaction) while others have valued their increases in flexibility and autonomy at work.

However, from an organisational perspective this physical distance creates specific challenges for managers to motivate and support their home-based employees. Given the ongoing nature of this global crisis organisations’ need to radically rethink their HR approach to ensure their employees remain motivated high-performers despite challenging work-from-home setups and minimal social contact. 

Little acts of ‘citizenship’

In the context of this increasingly virtual world of work, organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs) can play a crucial role in enabling organisations to effectively motivate their workforce.

Existing research defines organisational citizenship behaviour as employees going beyond the ‘call of duty’, that is, engaging in actions and behaviours that are not a part of one’s formal job description.

Organisational citizenship behaviours involve employees willingly going the extra mile to support their company by acting pro-organisation in person and on social media. They also include actions such as sticking with the organisation in less-than-ideal circumstances (such as accepting pay cuts and reduced hours), or even extending little acts of kindness within the business (such as being helpful and supportive towards both managers and colleagues) and actively avoiding conflicts within the workplace.

These ‘acts of citizenship’ often come about when employees feel connected to their organisation and colleagues – a potentially missing piece of the puzzle in the current climate of a remote and increasingly stressed workforce.

Our study highlighted that employees’ OCBs can be successfully enhanced through non-monetary rewards.

The study

We carried out a small comparative analysis of two organisations across two very different industries (transport and construction), involving in-depth interviews with senior HR managers as well as employees forced to work remotely because of the pandemic.

The overall aim of the study was to explore which pre-existing HR practices (such as reward strategy, performance management, employee voice mechanisms etc.) were effective in positively impacting employee motivation and performance levels, given considerably changed circumstances.

The findings highlighted two key organisational practices that increased employee propensity to engage in OCBs and subsequently enhanced the effectiveness of HR practices.

1. It’s not all about the money

Our study highlighted that employees’ OCBs can be successfully enhanced through non-monetary rewards. Across both industries, despite the overall climate of financial uncertainty, non-monetary rewards that focused on recognising employee effort increased the likelihood of employees going the extra mile.

Organisational practices such as nominating employees of the month or identifying A-star workers were well-received by the employees across both contexts (despite significant differences in the nature of work). Interestingly, these non-monetary rewards were seen to increase helpful and supportive behaviours across all employees rather than just the ones who won the accolades. 

Emotional intelligence (EQ) training can equip managers with the necessary skills to manage the emotions of employees and therefore facilitate change.

Organisational citizenship behaviours can sometimes come across as a vague and somewhat woolly concept. A practical way of using non-monetary recognition to enhance employees’ OCBs is to directly link key company values such as ethics, customer experience and technological innovation to observable and easily identifiable employee behaviours such as integrity, courteousness, collaboration and creativity.

More inter-personal employee efforts such as extending collegial support can be recognised via short videos or online company newsletters. This creates instant positive reinforcement around desirable acts of citizenship and can go a long way in strengthening a physically dispersed organisational community. 

2. The power of emotional intelligence

A second key finding was the direct impact of managerial empathy on employees’ exhibiting Organisational citizenship behaviours. Line managers who had an empathetic understanding of employees’ challenges (financial, physical and mental/emotional), and subsequently did not set unrealistic expectations, actually encouraged employees to deliver higher performance levels and go beyond their prescribed, required tasks.

Employees cited instances of managers going out of their way to provide them with technical equipment needed to work from home, taking into account employees’ very different personal situations (resulting in a range of flexible work arrangements within the same teams) and accepting 80% of pre-pandemic productivity levels from people with significant care responsibilities.

An increase in OCBs not only helps the organisation weather external shocks such as the pandemic, but also helps build resilient teams.

These managerial ‘acts of kindness’ in turn directly motivated employees to engage in OCBs. Conversely, in instances where line managers were seen to exhibit low empathy (for instance, one employee cited low managerial empathy around how asthma increased his risk of infection) we observed a negative impact on employees’ intentions to engage in extra role behaviours. 

Therefore empathy from direct supervisors/line managers, and a simple human acknowledgement of the challenges being faced by employees, motivated employees to not only readily accept pandemic-induced organisational change but also extend more support/help to their peers.

This finding was in line with a growing body of research that emphasizes emotional intelligence as a basic leadership prerequisite. Emotional intelligence (EQ) training can equip managers with the necessary skills to manage the emotions of employees and therefore facilitate change during, as well as beyond, times of crisis. 

Creativity and caring

Our findings highlight how creativity (by effectively using non-monetary rewards) and caring (by prioritising empathy and emotionally intelligent leadership) can increase employees’ organisational citizenship behaviours even in an ever-changing and precarious context like a global pandemic.

An increase in OCBs not only helps the organisation weather external shocks such as the pandemic, but also helps build resilient teams, create a supportive organisational culture and increase workplace creativity and innovation. In an increasingly uncertain world OCBs may just be the competitive edge needed to survive these times.

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