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What Is Next? The Longer-Term Managerial Challenges following COVID-19

NUCB Business School, Nagoya 460-0003, Japan
Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, School of Cultural and Creative Studies, Aoyama Gakuin University, Shibuya 150-8366, Japan
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2023, 15(18), 13513;
Submission received: 20 July 2023 / Revised: 4 September 2023 / Accepted: 7 September 2023 / Published: 9 September 2023


Existing research has highlighted the immediate challenges posed by the enforced work-from-home arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the effective transfer and retention of knowledge, especially tacit knowledge, due to the reduced opportunities for face-to-face interactions. This study seeks to delve into the enduring concerns and obstacles faced by business managers as they navigate a return to normalcy in their operations. We conducted a grounded approach study between September and December 2021, involving semi-structured interviews with thirteen managers from eight business firms in Hong Kong who had experience supervising and undergoing work-from-home arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research uncovered three layers of challenges. The first layer, echoing the existing literature, revolves around the inefficiencies in knowledge sharing stemming from the absence of physical interactions among colleagues. The second layer addresses the difficulties related to the socialization, performance, and retention of newcomers who joined the workforce during the pandemic. The third layer represents a longer-term challenge, encompassing skill and talent shortages attributed to the lack of intergenerational knowledge transfer. While our study acknowledges its limitations regarding representativeness and the absence of extensive quantitative evidence often associated with exploratory research, it nonetheless offers valuable insights for researchers and managers alike. These insights illuminate the imminent challenges that will surface as we navigate the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, this paper holds significance for business sustainability by directing managerial attention towards addressing the issues of skill and talent shortages that may hinder business performance or even its survival in the post-COVID-19 era.

1. Introduction

“The Coronavirus Outbreak Has Become the World’s Largest Work-From-Home Experiment”—TIME (2020).
The above title of a TIME article published in February 2020 succinctly captured the motivation of the current study—to help unfold the managerial concerns relating to the longer-term impacts of such an experiment. When it is called an experiment, this means that we lack understanding and knowledge of the phenomenon in question [1]. While the arrangement of work from home, or ‘WFH’ here after, is not new to both the academia and the business worlds, the way that it was implemented under the COVID-19 pandemic—a prolonged period of ‘full-time’ WFH applied to a large proportion of workers—is new and unknown to almost everybody and every organization [2]. Organizations and managers “have been caught off guard and were ill-prepared” for such an unprecedented, disruptive change [3] (p. 431). Moreover, there were further unknowns relating to this unknown phenomenon—some longer-term impacts on life and health, economy, labor market, etc. [4]. The current study sheds light on such ‘unknown unknowns’ by hearing from a selected sample of managers about the pressing concerns they have after months of experiences in undergoing and supervising WFH.
We paid particular attention to concerns relating to the challenges of knowledge sharing among organizational members under the WFH arrangement, as already reported in studies prior to the pandemic [5,6,7,8], because knowledge sharing and knowledge management in general are crucial to organizational competitiveness and sustainability [9,10,11]. While knowledge sharing under WFH in remote- or teleworking has been examined for more than a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the rules of the game. The challenge of knowledge sharing associating with the enforced WFH arrangement was no longer a ‘happy problem’ faced by a small group of privileged teleworkers that might resort to the help of information and communication technologies (ICTs) or occasional physical meetings in office. Precautionary measures including social distancing and contactless interactions to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus have maximized ICT-based communication and minimized physical interactions.
Our objective, therefore, is to (re-)explore the concerns associated with knowledge sharing under the large-scale enforced WFH arrangement. A ‘first generation’ of COVID-19-related studies has revealed some immediate effects on employees including work-related loneliness and lack of communication [12,13]. These effects, according to previous studies, would lead to problems of knowledge sharing, especially tacit knowledge sharing, which is heavily rooted in human relationships [5,7]. Nevertheless, such knowledge on correlational effects between constructs could offer us very limited insight on what is coming next—that is, the second-order effects of the pandemic arrangements. Second-order effects refer to the mid- to long-term effects on the fundamental design and shifting of structures beyond employees and their organizations, for example, the supply of qualified candidates in the labor market [14,15]. As suggested by [16] (p. 1), “it is the second-order effects of remote working that have the potential to be the most profound but are the most understudied”. While different scholars have called for investigation into the post-pandemic environment or offered academic advice on what to think ahead [17], few, if any, have unfolded what real challenges are emerging and what managers are worrying about towards the post-pandemic era [18]. Hence, the focal research question of the current study is: What are the immediate and longer-term managerial concerns following the enforced WFH arrangement?
We chose to focus on managers because they are the key people to help organizations navigate through the pandemic challenge [15,19] by “venturing into the “unknown unknowns”” [18] (p. 183). They, for example, are the first ones to narrate and introduce organizational changes to cope with the emergency [20,21], to understand and react to the mental health impact on employees [22], and to exhibit resilience to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on business [23]. Managerial perceptions and concerns are, therefore, the key means to explore and understand the longer-term impact of the global pandemic from a ‘first-person’ perspective. The timely dissemination of such findings can help researchers and practitioners better focus on and prepare for the challenges ahead in their respective arenas.
Our findings revealed three inter-related managerial challenges—the knowledge-sharing challenge, the socialization challenge, and the challenge of skill and talent shortages, with the last challenge being the more significant, longer-term concern in the transition into the post-pandemic era. Addressing such a concern, managers are advised to design and implement more effective ways of intergenerational knowledge transfers. As such, the current paper brings practical value to research on global health emergencies by unfolding, giving alert, and offering suggestions to its longer-term impact. Academically, the current study established linkages between the short-term challenge of human interactions and knowledge sharing with the longer-term consequences of skill and talent shortages. Also, this paper bridges the gap between theory and practice by listening to supervisors and managers in practice, whereas existing studies were mostly conceptual and opinion-based.

1.1. Literature Review

1.1.1. Implementation and Consequences of WFH

WFH refers to the phenomenon of employees conducting their work at home. Such a work arrangement is subsumed under the arrangement of remote- or teleworking, which in turn relates to the practice of flexible work arrangements for employees in need or offered as a perk to valuable employees [24,25,26]. There has been an established set of literature examining the phenomenon of teleworking that paid significant attention to the problems of information and knowledge exchanges among teleworkers [27,28]. It was posited that because of the physical separation of teleworkers, they lacked opportunities to communicate and interact with one another, causing individual- and work-related consequences including the feeling of isolation, identity threat, lack of material and social support, and inefficient information and knowledge sharing [29,30]. Against this backdrop, the use of ICTs was often cited as an effective solution to virtually connect teleworkers to minimize the effect of physical distances [6,31,32].
While ICTs can help maintain communication and information exchanges to a certain extent, they are limited in mimicking the more ad hoc and casual encounters typically present in a physical premise [7]. These casual interactions are postulated to be the most important drivers of tacit knowledge sharing and knowledge co-creation [33]. Therefore, the use of ICTs in mitigating the problem of knowledge sharing in teleworking has received mixed evaluations. On the one hand, ICTs can help connect teleworkers for basic communication and the transmission of explicit information. On the other hand, ICTs fall short of the motivational and relational factors necessary for tacit knowledge sharing.
Moreover, the arrangement of teleworking and the use of ICTs represented ‘options’ in studies that were conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the pre-pandemic context, teleworking could be supplemented with regular onsite meetings or ‘office days’ [26]. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has completely changed the contextual conditions. Teleworking under the pandemic, mostly in the form of WFH, was enforced and implemented with a much larger scale, a much longer time, and a much more stringent execution, where in-person meetings or regular office days were minimized for over a year [12]. Jobs that could be conducted remotely went remote almost overnight with the facilitation of ICTs. This gave rise to a stream of research examining the consequences of such an unprecedented and abrupt change.

1.1.2. COVID-19-Related Studies

Early COVID-19-related studies in the management field were mostly about the immediate impacts on employees brought about by the abrupt change to WFH. For example, ref. [13] found firm-wide remote work to have caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed as well as increasing asynchronous communication among them; ref. [34] found techno-stressors relating to WFH to have intensified work–family conflict and behavioral stress; and ref. [35] examined workers’ transition from pre-pandemic to after the pandemic’s onset and found that workers who failed to handle the work–life segmentation during transition were associated with negative consequences, such as lower job satisfaction and job performance as well as higher turnover intention. To combat the above challenges, ref. [36] suggested having dedicated office spaces within homes to help work–life segmentation and balance; whereas, ref. [12] advised managers to shape employees’ perceived job control and work–life interfaces to create a more positive perception of WFH. Social support and job autonomy were also identified as important to attenuate WFH challenges such as loneliness and work–home interface [17].
These first-generation studies were about “first-order effects—areas of organizational behavior that are likely to change directly following a transition to working exclusively through digital technologies” [16] (p. 1). This is understandable as the current pandemic calls for people’s attention to not only physical health but also mental health. Comparatively, the problem of knowledge sharing among WFH workers has received less attention.
Available studies relating to the topic of knowledge sharing mainly surround how it can help tackle the current pandemic [11,37,38,39,40] but not about the knowledge-sharing challenges faced by managers. We speculate that this may be partly due to the availability of an established set of literature on knowledge sharing in teleworking, as reviewed in earlier paragraphs. We are, however, skeptical about our own speculation as we have been reminded that COVID-19 has completely changed the playing field and that we must be cautious with applying past findings onto the current pandemic context [4,12,17]. Further, other facets of impacts by COVID-19, including the economy and the labor market, should also be taken into consideration in examining what is going on and what will come next [4,31,41].
Taken together, given the mixed views on the function of ICTs in facilitating knowledge sharing received pre-pandemic and the fact that “knowledge exchanges practices in crisis time have become relatively underexplored” [42] (p. 195), there is a need to explore the issue of knowledge sharing under the current WFH arrangements and, more importantly, its longer-term challenges brought to business managers. As suggested by [18] (p. 186), while “the long-term implications of COVID-19 are currently unknown, … our focus must be forward thinking, building on the assumption that the grand challenge we currently face… constitutes a “new reality” that offers new opportunities to which organizational scholars and practitioners alike will need and want to remain attentive”. Moreover, “the most pressing concern for companies recently due to COVID-19 was their survival and business continuity”, but the existing studies focusing on the first-order effects failed to address such pressing concerns [43]. It is thus important to explore what managers think and are concerned about in a longer-term perspective about the enforced WFH arrangement.

2. Materials and Methods

Data and findings reported in this study are part of an on-going project exploring the perceptions of managers and employees on WFH and its impact on organizational management across various Asian societies. The current paper reports research conducted in the first wave of the project—interviews with selected managers regarding their longer-term or more strategic concerns on organizational management after experiencing extensive period of enforced WFH. Due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic arrangements, a qualitative approach employing semi-structured interviews was adopted for exploratory purposes [44].
Our qualitative approach mimics a case-study design [45], in that we attempted to construct a phenomenon case of WFH by interviewing managers who have been undergoing WFH themselves and supervising WFH subordinates. We limited our respondents to those managers working in a job nature that is knowledge-based and/or service-based to ensure their true experiences of WFH (i.e., being able to carry out their tasks remotely). This commonality of the job nature background can facilitate the comparison of ‘cases’ raised across the respondents [46]. Findings were generated by a grounded approach [47] involving constant comparison and coding and categorization procedures.

2.1. Sampling Strategy

To consider timely delivery of COVID-19-related research findings to help anyone in need to cope with the grant challenge [4], we chose a sampling strategy that allowed us to have quick access to data sources (the interviewees) and simultaneously satisfy the criteria of theoretical sampling [48]. The sampling strategy worked as follows. First, we chose to focus on interviewing only managers as our research objective is to unfold key managerial concerns following the prolonged period of WFH. While hearing from non-managers, such as frontline workers, would enrich our understanding of the phenomenon in question, there have already been studies about their concerns and situations (stress, work–life interface, performance, etc.) [18,36,49]. We, therefore, parsimoniously focused on managers in the current study to add further knowledge to the existing literature. Second, we looked for managers whose jobs are largely knowledge-based or service-based and have had continuous periods of supervising WFH experiences. Third, we tried to secure interviewees by the first author’s established contacts in Hong Kong who had participated in some of his previous studies. This could speed up the process of data collection, especially amidst the pandemic period when “[g]etting face time with someone for an interview is an entirely different proposition now” [4] (p. 5). Lastly, a snowballing technique [50] was employed to obtain referrals for potential respondents from the participating interviewees.

2.2. Data Collection

Conducting interviews is a highly efficient way to gather empirical perspectives when the phenomenon in question is relatively unknown and complex [51]. Specifically, semi-structured interviews can serve the exploratory purpose well as it allows the flexibility for respondents to volunteer their stories while also keeping the conversation aligned with the research objectives [52].
Thirteen managers, all based in Hong Kong, were interviewed between September and December 2021. Profiles of the interviewees are presented in Table 1. All interviews were conducted on a one-to-one basis on Zoom and carried out in Cantonese, the mother-tongue of the interviewees, to avoid any loss of meaning and communication due to language barriers. Each interview lasted between 30 and 60 min and was audio- or video-recorded. The recorded interviews were then transcribed and translated into English by a professional translation company, which created over 110 pages of interview corpus.
The interviews were conducted in a semi-structured manner guided by an interview protocol, as shown in Appendix A, which contained open-ended questions probing the experiences and concerns of WFH practices in their respective organizations. The questions were designed based on prior research findings of teleworking/WFH, regarding the difficulties of relationship building [7], knowledge sharing and communication [5], and acculturation and socialization [53]. We wanted to explore how these difficulties are being played out in the pandemic context [3] and the anticipated longer-term consequences on organizational management. The protocol was applied flexibly to allow the interviewees to openly discuss their insights and concerns in managing the current situation with room to probe for any specificities or unexpected issues. We decided to stop further interviews when we saw no new insights being discovered from new interviews, i.e., when a saturation point was reached [54].

2.3. Data Analysis

Data analysis was carried out according to the “constant comparison” method [51]. This method involved activities for producing and integrating categories and characteristics, as well as constructing the emerging themes [55]. By comparing the data collected, the researcher “is able to do what is necessary to develop a theory more or less inductively, namely categorizing, coding, delineating categories and connecting them” [56] (p. 393). Emerging themes were reviewed and refined by the authors to reach consensus about the findings to report [57].
The analysis was performed manually by the authors. The process began with each author separately categorizing and coding interview transcripts to identify ‘stories within the text’ [51], regarding what the interviewees’ concerns were relating to the knowledge-sharing challenges of prolonged WFH. After the initial categorization and coding, the analysis was sent to the respective respondent for accuracy verification and inviting supplementary explanation where appropriate. The authors then met to compare the interpretations in each of the transcripts, the emerging stories, as well as to discuss and resolve any differences. Then, the authors compared the emerging stories across transcripts to identify similarities and connect related experiences across interviewees. A second-order categorization was conducted to denote the emergence of trends upon comparison. The emerging trends were eventually connected and grouped into themes to be reported as the major findings.

3. Results

Three themes emerged regarding the challenges of communication and knowledge sharing under the enforced WFH arrangement—knowledge-sharing challenges, socialization challenges, and skill and talent challenges. The three challenges are related to each other in a layered structure, with the lower-layered ones giving rise, at least partially, to the higher-layered ones. Below, we begin with the discussion of the first layer—knowledge-sharing challenges.

3.1. Knowledge-Sharing Challenges

Consistent with previous studies of teleworking, all interviewees indicated the lack of face-to-face interactions among colleagues to be a key concern under the enforced WFH arrangement. The lack of face-to-face interactions caused immediate inconvenience in communication; however, when such a situation continued for an extended period, it created more significant problems of knowledge sharing, knowledge creation, and socialization. Some interviewees explained that it was easy before the pandemic to just walk over to their colleagues, grab a pencil and paper for drawing, and then verbally exchange viewpoints regarding a task or a problem at hand. Although such interactions are theoretically possible with the help of digital resources, it is practically discouraging to do so given the inconvenience involved.
“In the office, we can just look at the model together, and if necessary, just grab a piece of paper and ruler to start drawing. We can see the drafts immediately. If we’re doing it on [Microsoft] Teams, we can’t do things simultaneously because the switching is slower. If I turn on my model, I can’t draw because we can only share screens. We have to do everything step by step, and I can’t just draw when discussing or brainstorming. Everything is more difficult, I think. If we meet in person, I can use some objects to help me imagine what to be constructed, but when on Teams, our imagination is harder to express. Some colleagues don’t like to turn on their cams, so it limits our imagination more”.
“I think it’s about expressing ideas. As I’ve said, you can’t look at the same screen. If we’re at the office, I can take over quickly, but this couldn’t be done while at home. Share screen is possible but it’s still not as smooth as when we’re at the office. Our network is slower, and we can’t listen clearly. For example, I can just draw things out in the office, but I’ll have to use other software to do that while at home, it certainly takes more time”.
This means that the key lies with the inconvenience in using digital resources to facilitate idea exchanges. Such inconveniences would be magnified for people who are not so accustomed to using technology. Moreover, by staying at home, the chances of informal interactions happening inside or outside the workplace were largely diminished, and the digital resources could do minimal help to maintain such informal interactions [3]. Such a viewpoint echoed what [7] (p. 1064) argued, that “the planning and formality [of using digital resources] necessary to accommodate interactions with others… alters the give and take of knowledge sharing and the inherent informality” involved in it. Using digital resources to fill the lack of face-to-face interactions is more about scheduling formal meetings rather than mimicking the more ad hoc, casual encounters between colleagues.
“For example, if I need something, I can go to people from other departments and ask them directly. If a problem needs to be solved, we can just hold a meeting quickly. This cannot be done during work from home. It’s possible, but I think this is too troublesome and they won’t be willing. Also, for people of our age, I prefer having hard copies. I can simply put them in places I want, and I can remember where it is. While working from home, I won’t have a laser printer at home so I can only rely on my memory or soft copies, but I sometimes lose it”.
“These [informal] discussions might be useful in and outside of work. For example, for us with kids, we’ll talk about kid caring. It might be venting or sharing some tips. Because we don’t usually see friends during the week, work is our chance to socialize with each other. If we’re not in the office, we have no chance to socialize”.

3.2. Socialization Challenges with Newcomers

The lack of interaction and sharing during WFH is particularly relevant to newcomers who joined the organization after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The negative effect of the lack of sharing was further intensified by the lack of face-to-face socialization. The result is that newcomers were not able to learn (1) effectively explicit knowledge required for work, (2) tacitly the culture of the organization, and (3) to develop a sense of collectivity and relationships.
“[W]ith my new colleague, he’s a fresh graduate. We have jargon that only we can get. If we use software, say by written communication, he might not understand what I mean. Even when we are communicating verbally [online], I can’t really see whether he understands or not. If we’re talking face-to-face, I can observe better and see whether he truly gets it. The limitation of software means that people tend to wait until you’re done talking, and they might forget what they don’t know at the start of the conversation”.
When interviewees were further probed for the differences between online training and face-to-face training, some of them explained as follows:
“I think it’s [online is] fine for work but not for coaching. For coaching, I think I did less. Because I would be direct, I’ll just tell them what to do. I might have given them feedback or more background before, but now I have to be direct. I won’t explain as deeply through messages, calls or even video conferencing. Normally, I might say more, for example some background. So, I did less coaching”.
“I think the main difference is about interaction. Naturally, there is less interaction when I’m working from home. It’s quite problematic if they’re new joiners. They might be shy and not asking everything. We might have to care for them more, but this causes another problem of them complaining about me micromanaging. I don’t really know, there’s different thoughts to this. It’s really difficult”.
When further probed about the overall effectiveness of online training and coaching, some interviewees responded as follows:
“Actually, at the start where there’s no technical training at all, our colleagues are like students without lessons, they have no growth at all. Also, there’ll be less contact between colleagues, they don’t know each other, or we know people whom we never see. Colleagues joining the firm at the peak of the pandemic, I might not see them at all, even if they passed probation. I think this will affect both the friendship between colleagues and their development”.
“I think the most difficult part of it is knowing about the colleagues, as I don’t know many of them now. Now I have no idea who the new joiners are or even their names. We have never chatted or seen them, and I don’t think they have any sense of belonging. This is the worst part of work from home”.
“Although, personally speaking, work from home is quite good to me, there is one major downside I experienced, and that is, I cannot know and socialize with the new entrants of my team”.
Two major consequences followed. The first is that novices did not stay long in the organization. Some of the interviewees reported that the novices in their company left after just a few months upon joining, mainly for the reason of “getting lost”—they seem to know nothing about their employer, about their colleagues, about their work, and about their career prospect in the organization. Some of them did not even have a chance to meet and have an in-depth conversation with their supervisor between the period they joined and left the company.
“I remember one time my subordinate discussing about the departure of a colleague, and you know what, I had no idea we had such a person in our team! My subordinate told me that she joined us when everybody was working from home, and she felt that she was so disconnected with us and learning nothing about the job. So, she just quitted after a month of joining us”.
This is not a single incident that happened with one interviewee in one organization. We received other responses echoing a similar situation.
“I lost two workers just last month. I recruited them to replace people who left at the start of the pandemic. And now the two new joiners told me they could not adapt to both the WFH practice and to the organization because they found no meaning and no connection at their work. Well, I then decided I better not recruit when we are still working from home”.
Because of the ineffectiveness of socializing, training, and retaining the new hires, the second consequence is that some organizations chose to stop hiring during the COVID-19 period, which admittedly is also related to a stagnant economy.
“I heard many companies stopped hiring. Of course, I cannot say this is 100% due to WFH. We all know that the economy is bad during pandemic. But at least for me, if I have to choose, I won’t choose to hire when we are still working from home. I will just wait until the pandemic ends and when we return to office”.
“Businesses are bad now everywhere. No one is hiring. Not even to mention this when we need to work at home”.
Nevertheless, readers should take note of the contextual conditions of the above expressions—that the interviewees’ organizations have been negatively affected by the pandemic, which directly or indirectly causing reduced hirings. While the unemployment rate worldwide has surged because of the severe hit on global economies by the COVID-19 pandemic [58,59], there were businesses, such as online retailers or telecommunications, that benefited from the pandemic, resulting in increased, rather than reduced, hirings [60,61]. These divided consequences of the current pandemic require researchers’ attention to carefully study and delineate the contextual conditions of the observations to generate contextualized knowledge [4]. Contextualized knowledge, as argued by [4] (p. 5), under the extremely unique and unprecedented nature of the current pandemic is more preferable than generalized knowledge “as long as the context is important in its own right”.

3.3. Skill and Talent Shortages

Before the pandemic, managers were mostly concerned about knowledge loss due to staff departure [62,63], that is, the job lost the person. But under the pandemic, the situation was the opposite: people lost job opportunities. In such a situation, knowledge was lost due to the unavailability of a receiver, giving rise to the problems of intergenerational knowledge transfer and organizational amnesia [64,65]. The quick loss of new hires, combined with reduced hirings in some companies, created a situation where people in the labor market, especially for the fresh graduates, lacked chances to learn and practice in the trade. As a result, for those who were waiting for employment opportunities, they were facing a gap in their knowledge and skills because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, they could not develop specific knowledge regarding the operation and culture of an organization (i.e., their employer). On the other hand, they could not know and catch the trends and standards of the respective trade. Hence, several interviewees raised their concerns and worries that the pandemic would not only affect individual companies’ performances, but its impact would escalate more broadly to the availability of qualified employees at the industry as well as the social levels.
“It’s difficult to talk about long-term planning now. One [reason] is about business. The other is about how to hire people after the pandemic. Many people are losing their jobs and many others are not getting recruited. How can they learn and pick up the job once the pandemic ends? It’s headache to imagine that”.
“I really want to raise the issue of talent nurturing during the pandemic period. Many people are not getting opportunities to work. No opportunities to learn, to practice. This will cause a huge problem for the industry as a whole, as there will be a shortage of talent available to work immediately after the pandemic. Veterans are losing their skills. New graduates are losing their knowledge”.
“Some companies use work from home as a cost-cutting measure. They are trying to cut office space to save overheads. Next, they try to cut headcounts to save human resource costs. And of course, they won’t be hiring anymore. So, fewer people doing the same amount of task. But don’t forget, knowledge and skills are lost when people are gone. And there is no new supply of that. Not now, and even not in the future”.
The above comments made reflect the challenge of passing down knowledge from one generation of employees to another [66], amidst the already difficult situation of knowledge sharing [7,8]. Although technology can be used to help store and transmit the more explicit type of knowledge, such as standard working procedures and instruction manuals (the whats), the more tacit elements of knowledge (the hows, the whys, and the contextual conditions of knowledge) are more difficult, if ever possible, to be stored by digital means [66,67,68]. These more tacit elements of knowledge often rely on what our interviewees referred to as “the opportunities to work” and “the opportunities to practice” for their transmission and absorption [69].
Moreover, it is often these tacit elements of knowledge that differentiate between an expert and a novice or between a professional and a non-professional [67,70]. Therefore, with the long-term absence of the opportunities to work and to practice, the tacit elements of knowledge relating to a specific job, or a specific trade, are gradually lost despite the availability of digital means to store certain explicit contents. At the end, when people return to work or newly join the trade, they will only have the whats at hand without knowing the hows and the whys to perform those whats [70], causing the concern of skill and talent shortages, as expressed by our interviewees.

4. Discussion

In the earlier stage of the pandemic, there was a wave of studies examining the more micro-level impacts of WFH on employees’ work processes and productivity. While the discussion of the issue of knowledge sharing under a teleworking arrangement is not new, it is unprecedented with the number of employees and managers who need to face this challenge under the current global pandemic. Many were not prepared for such a challenge. Suggestions including weekly online meetings and alternative work arrangements (partly online and partly physical) whenever the environment allows have been given to tackle the lack of rich interactions among remote workers.
The current study continues with this line of inquiry but directs the readers’ conversations to a next level—namely the question of ‘what’s next?’—by interviewing with and reporting the experiences of supervisors and managers who have been undergoing and supervising WFH for a prolonged period. However, since we are talking about an ‘expected but unknown next,’ it is difficult to formally theorize for such a future by our common research methodologies [4]. But, given the pressing concerns of business sustainability and the need to offer insights to academics and practitioners to better prepare for what is coming, we consider hearing from supervisors and managers in practice on their ‘first-hand’ perceptions and concerns as a plausible means to ‘peep’ at some of the post-pandemic challenges.
We asked the interviewees for both the immediate and the longer-term concerns of knowledge challenges relating to the enforced WFH arrangement due to COVID-19. We found that the issue of knowledge sharing is still around at the mid-to-late stage of the pandemic. Moreover, the managers are turning their attention more to the business in the post-pandemic era, worrying about the ‘sequela’ of the knowledge challenges during WFH. They identified talent shortages both within their respective companies and in the wider industry as the number one challenge in the post-pandemic era. In essence, our study unfolded a chain effect of knowledge and talent losses in industries that have been hit by the pandemic (see Figure 1).
As such, the current study bridges and directs existing conversations on ‘how to resolve knowledge sharing challenges during WFH’ with ones that deal with “how to resolve skill and talent shortages post pandemic”. Such a ‘new’ conversation, in fact, has already appeared in recent industrial news including talent shortages in Australia and the US that caused business shutdowns amidst the economy recovery boom at the start of the post-pandemic [71] and the massive cancellation of flights due to airlines’ inability to plan and operate [72]. While these industrial reports seem to focus on the tourism and hospitality industries, as they are the first ones to go through recovery and the ones most badly hit by the pandemic, such skill and talent shortages are expected to emerge in other trades that face similar situations. Reference [73], for example, conducted a study on the impact of COVID-19 on the lack of skilled construction laborers in Sri Lanka and called for more such studies to examine how governments and professionals should pay attention to the labor market shaped by the impact of COVID-19. While offering public policy suggestions is beyond the scope of the current paper, we attempt to devise a few practical suggestions for business managers to better prepare for the challenges ahead.

4.1. Practical Implications

The concern on skill and talent shortages somehow resembles the issue of organizational amnesia that has been researched in the literature [64,65]. Some lessons can thus be drawn from there on how managers can prepare for the skill and talent shortages at the post-pandemic time. For example, one fundamental effort, as suggested by [74] (p. 138), that “does not require much effort and results in tremendous benefits is the “leaving a trail” practice”, that is, requiring veteran employees “to collect the most important documents describing their working practices”. Reference [75] went further to suggest the concept of a ”digital organizational culture handbook” to serve the purpose of passing on tacit cultural elements. Although such a tedious codification task might not be received positively by employees [76,77], it is considered as probably the simplest and the best effort that organizational members can perform to avoid knowledge loss.
Second, when people cannot be recruited into the company, managers can still perform their knowledge-sharing, socialization, and relationship-building efforts with potential candidates in related professional or trade communities [74]. That is, managers can participate more in informal occasions of intergenerational knowledge transfer outside the company boundary in some of the communities’ online forums or gatherings. Such informal socialization efforts can also be facilitated by social media usage such as LinkedIn.
Third, managers should try, as far as possible albeit economic pressures, to retain their veteran employees by revising the organization’s human resource management policies to cope with the current environmental disruptions. According to [78], measures that should be considered include those that can (1) help individual employees cope with environmental disruptions (e.g., targeting employees’ physical and emotional resources), (2) help build a high reliability organization against current and future environmental disruptions (e.g., employee resilience training), and (3) help build a socially responsible organizational image that attracts current and future employees (e.g., redeploying human resources or mobilizing volunteers to help society cope with the environmental disruption).

4.2. Limitations and Future Research

While acknowledging the contributions and merits outlined above, it is essential for readers to exercise caution when considering the limitations of this study. Primarily, caution is warranted when attempting to extrapolate findings from the relatively small sample size employed in this qualitative study. While the modest sample size did not impede the attainment of theoretical saturation or compromise the reliability and validity of the study [79,80], it is advisable for future research to undertake larger-scale quantitative investigations or mixed-method forms of research. Such endeavors could delve into areas such as the extent of managerial attention dedicated to or the stress induced by the identified skill and talent shortages.
Relating to the above, the findings represent the viewpoints of the managers interviewed regarding the specific situations they and their organizations were facing. There are other trades and organizations that benefited, not suffered, from the pandemic. These organizations should be researched differently from the perspectives of the current study.
Third, given the focus of the current study on WFH arrangements, there might be other factors contributing to the lack of knowledge sharing such as leadership [10], culture [81], and incentives [82]. Future study is encouraged to conduct a larger-scale quantitative study to factor in different aspects of the phenomenon and provide an empirical verification to the causal relationships postulated in the current study.
Fourth, interviewees in this study come from a homogeneous cultural background. There is the possibility that people from different cultures may perceive, adapt, and thus implement the practice of WFH differently, and the issues of knowledge transfer and socialization might not present the same level of challenge to those who adapt better to WFH [83]. Moreover, there are manual workers who cannot WFH at all. We are curious whether the problems identified from our findings would apply to them. Future research needs to repeat the same exploratory effort to unfold the short-term and longer-term challenges of pandemic-contained measures in different cultural and occupational contexts.
Finally, we encourage future research to consider the potential benefits of WFH together with the reported challenges to allow managers to develop a more comprehensive view of whether WFH arrangements fit with the goals and values of their organizations. Some of the benefits of WFH that have been mentioned by our respondents include improved productivity due to increased concentration and time flexibility, improved satisfaction due to increased autonomy, and improved well-being due to less stress.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, K.K.L. and Y.K.; methodology, K.K.L.; data analysis, K.K.L. and Y.K.; writing—original draft preparation, K.K.L.; writing—review and editing, K.K.L. and Y.K.; funding acquisition, K.K.L. and Y.K. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 21K01662.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to confidentiality agreements with the interviewees.


We would like to thank all the interviewed managers for their participation.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

Semi-structured interview protocol:
  • How has the prolonged WFH arrangement affected or changed employees’ work and work-related practices?
  • Can you explain in more details, and provide examples where appropriate, the impacts on communication and information and knowledge sharing among organizational members?
  • How do you feel ICTs could have helped communication and knowledge sharing? What are the strengths and limitations of ICTs in this regard?
  • Do you have any particular concerns on broader business issues because of the communication and knowledge-sharing issues we have just discussed?
  • What would be one or two of the greatest challenges from a managerial perspective when the pandemic still lasts or ends in the near future?
  • What are the top three agendas in your current planning to prepare your employees and the organization for the post-pandemic environment?


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Disclaimer/Publisher’s Note: The statements, opinions, and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions, or products referred to in the content.
Figure 1. A chain effect of knowledge challenges under prolonged WFH.
Figure 1. A chain effect of knowledge challenges under prolonged WFH.
Sustainability 15 13513 g001
Table 1. Interviewees’ profiles.
Table 1. Interviewees’ profiles.
Job TitleJob NatureCompany’s BusinessCompany’s SizeYears of Supervisory/Managerial Role in the CompanyLongest Continuous WFH Period (in Months)No. of Staff Directly Supervised during WFHInterviewee Code
DirectorAccountingAccounting100+18+18 8DA1
Principal engineerEngineeringCivil engineering consultancy50+5+2 6PE1
Principal engineerEngineering6+3 7PE2
Assistant engineerEngineering2+9 3AE1
Senior engineerEngineering10+12 5SE1
EngineerEngineer designTechnology and innovation30+10+2 4EE1
General managerGeneral managementLogistics500+15+3 8GG1
Owner and CPA (practicing)AuditingAuditing628+18 5OA1
Sales managerSales and customer serviceLogistics200+6+2 4SS1
Financial controllerAccounting9+4 3FA1
AccountantAccounting4+4 2AA1
Senior managerAuditingAuditing20+13+9 6SA1
Advisory assistant managerCustomer advisoryFinancial consultancy100+2+12 4AC1
Note: Interviewees sharing the same ‘company’s business’ cell means they work in the same company.
Disclaimer/Publisher’s Note: The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.

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Law, K.K.; Koh, Y. What Is Next? The Longer-Term Managerial Challenges following COVID-19. Sustainability 2023, 15, 13513.

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Law, Kuok Kei, and Youngjae Koh. 2023. "What Is Next? The Longer-Term Managerial Challenges following COVID-19" Sustainability 15, no. 18: 13513.

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