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During the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen jobs lost, sporting events canceled, our favorite cafes and bars shuttered, and gyms closed. Many of us have transitioned to full-time telework, moving out of shared office spaces where we exchanged hellos and swapped weekend stories in the halls. As a result of these profound changes, many individuals are suffering from identity loss.

Identity is how we define ourselves or who we think we are and is intimately tied to one’s profession, hobbies, and social circles. With job changes and losses, and strict limitations on social interactions and activities, many individuals are left wondering, “Who am I? What is my purpose? What are my values?” One of the primary identities through which individuals can draw meaning and purpose is one’s organizational identity, which is the extent to which individuals define themselves by their membership in an organization.

Working from home and not being allowed to go into your office, to see your coworkers, or to engage with clients face-to-face may leave some individuals searching for and asking themselves who they are without those activities in their daily life. This is normal. Identities change during times of stress or when major events occur in one’s life such as getting married, getting divorced, moving, losing loved ones, or changing one's occupation. In particular, organizational identities can change with change in management, growing or shrinking of a company, takeovers and mergers, cutbacks, and, as we now know, pandemics.

Identities are important for individuals because they often positively influence their mental and physical well-being. They are also important for companies because employees with stronger organizational identities are often more productive, creative, and compliant, and they tend to exhibit lower levels of absenteeism and more organizational citizenship behaviors (such as performing behaviors that go beyond one’s role to help or provide support).

Four Ways to Bolster Employees’ Organizational Identities

During this pandemic, when organizational identities may be at risk, it’s important for employers to consider their employees when making organizational decisions and practices. The following are four areas companies can focus on to bolster employees’ sense of organizational identity during this time:

Amplify Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts

Employee perceptions of corporate social responsibility are positively associated with organizational identity. Employees identify more strongly with organizations when they feel the work they are doing is making a difference. Bob Stiller, the founder of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, has said: “I’ve learned that people are motivated and more willing to go the extra mile to make the company successful when there’s a higher good associated with it. It is no longer just a job. Work becomes meaningful and this makes us more competitive.”

Encourage a Culture of Empathy

Perceptions of management’s concern for their employees increases organizational identity. The behaviors and actions of management influences employees’ well-being. Management can demonstrate concern through behaviors and actions such as modeling positive behavior, encouraging teamwork, recognizing employees’ efforts and accomplishments, and being responsive to employees’ concerns. Labor-friendly practices are potentially actionable ways to increase perceptions of management concern for their employees. Specifically, during the coronavirus pandemic, this could be in the form of allocating resources (e.g., time, services focused on mental and physical health) to employee well-being and work–life balance.

Increase Intraorganizational Communication

Satisfaction with intraorganizational communication is positively related to organizational identification. Generally, more information is positively associated with more satisfaction, and sharing critical information through the proper channels is important. Particularly during this pandemic, which is a time of great uncertainty, keeping employees informed and updated about changes and providing any possible reassurances is important to maintaining employee satisfaction and identification. Further, encouraging employees to communicate with each other, especially informally, can maintain important bonds that are crucial to organizational identity.

Remain Consistent

Perceived organizational reliability is positively related to organizational identification. Again, during this time when many things are unsettled and unpredictable, maintaining consistency, dependability, and reliability to the extent possible is beneficial for organizational identity. While it may be difficult, making decisions and following through on what you say you’re going to do is important for providing some stability to and instilling trust in your employees.

By prioritizing these four actions, organizations can help their employees maintain a sense of identity and connection to their organization during these unprecedented times.

FMG’s industrial-organizational (I-O) and social psychology experts have a deep understanding of policy implementation best practices, designing and delivering climate and culture surveys, and knowledge of military and federal workforce-related regulations, policies, and systems as well as expertise in all the specific disciplines and specialty areas within HR. Learn more about our Human Capital and Defense expertise.

About the author

Tina DeMarco, Ph.D.

Tina DeMarco, Ph.D.

Dr. Tina DeMarco has experience conducting applied and academic research for peer-reviewed publications, government-funded projects, and private sector clients. She received her PhD in social psychology from University at Albany, where the majority of her research focused on group identification and well-being. As a member of FMG’s Military Health and Well-Being team, she studies misconduct, sexual assault, health, and associated outcomes in the Military. 

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