DBA students Emily Lane, Matthew Aplin-Houtz win recognition for paper highlighting communication challenges of remote work

Emily Lane and Matthew Aplin-Houtz standing on stage as others applaud

DBA students Matthew Aplin-Houtz (left) and Emily Lane (center) react on stage after learning they were awarded Best Paper at the 2021 Engaged Management Scholarship Conference, held in September at Florida International University. (Photo courtesy of Ekin Pellegrini)

Emily Lane’s face could barely mask the shock she felt last month when she and Matthew Aplin-Houtz were called onto the stage during the Engaged Management Scholarship Conference being held on the campus of Florida International University in Miami.

The two first-year students in the Doctor of Business Administration Program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis had just learned they’d received the Best Paper Award at the annual conference, put on by the Executive DBA Council. The conference, marking its 11th year, provides a venue for management practitioner scholars and DBA students to meet and share research findings.

The theme for 2021: “The Really Big Problems.” Lane and Aplin-Houtz’s paper, titled “Fair or Not? The Impact of Remote Working on Organizational Justice During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” hit squarely on one of them.

“There’s just so much more opportunity to investigate the remote work format and how it really impacts an employee – not just in the work they do, but emotionally and cognitively,” said Lane, who has a background in human resources and is now an assistant teaching professor in the UMSL’s Department of Global Leadership and Management. “There is a level of isolation that comes into play with that. We’re basically saying: ‘How do people feel? What are their emotions, and do they think it’s fair?’”

The concept of organizational justice has four components – distributive, procedural, interpersonal and informational. Distributive justice encompasses the perception of how organizational resources are used. Procedural justice covers issues that arise in processes adopted or observed by an organization, including implied or inferred bias and whether stakeholders have adequate representation. Interpersonal justice relates to the level of respect employees feel during organizational interactions. Finally, informational justice includes how timely, specific and truthful information communicated to an employee is.

Lane and Aplin-Houtz’s research revealed the particular relevance of informational justice.

“Given the state of the world right now with so many people doing remote work, most of our conversations are through email and text,” Lane said. “Those are not good to expand, to give a full-fledged level of communication. So, we’re having to change the way we communicate and how we communicate using the technology.”

Remote workers can find themselves caught out of the information loop when supervisors or co-workers don’t organically cross paths with them and share important nuggets of information they need to know. Instead, it takes a more deliberate effort to fill them in, and if that effort isn’t made or some of the details aren’t conveyed the same way in an email or a text message, those workers can feel disadvantaged and have negative feelings.

Lane learned that a lot earlier than most people because she’s been working largely remotely for more than two decades, starting as an adjunct faculty member and eventually transitioning to a full-time faculty position while simultaneously serving as the primary caregiver to her two children, now ages 24 and 20.

“They literally were babies at my feet while I was teaching as an adjunct professor,” she said. “I took on the role of doing online teaching before online teaching was really the way it is. It was a small trend that has now become this whole new industry. In the eLearning environment, I was doing it before, having to make everything up from scratch: how to communicate to students, how to make sure they’re understanding the material. Do we do synchronous, asynchronous, blended and hybrid – all the different words that are being bandied about? I was doing this 20 years ago.”

She knew when she started the DBA program that remote work would be the foundation of her research for her dissertation. But the onset of the pandemic helped make the topic much more relevant to everyone else.

It also provided Lane a timely topic to write about using the methods they learned in Professor Stephanie Merritt’s Qualitative Research Methods course. She ultimately submitted her paper for consideration ahead of the June 21 deadline, and it was one of 13 from UMSL DBA students that were accepted.

“The DBA program is training practitioner-scholars, which requires a mindset that focuses on asking the right questions to identify the problems practitioners are facing and the application of theories, methods and tools of the scientific method to inform practical application,” said Associate Professor Ekin Pellegrini, the founding director of the DBA program and a board member at the Executive DBA Council. “Examining the impact of remote working on organizational fairness during the pandemic is a perfect illustration of how DBA research can directly inform practice. It’s a theoretically important, practically relevant and timely research question which is a trend we see in all UMSL DBA dissertations.”

Lane teamed up with Aplin-Houtz to build on her original paper before presenting last month, incorporating some qualitative data analysis on employees’ emotional feelings about remote work.

“The traditional way that a person would go out and gather this information in social science is that they would go out and get interviews from the individual employees, and they would do a small sample that’s representational of the larger population,” Aplin-Houtz said. “What we chose to do instead is to take an actual pulse of social media.”

Specifically, they looked to Reddit because it offers people a more comfortable forum for discussing their concerns compared to face-to-face interactions. It allows for anonymous submissions of comments, ideas and conversations, and it tends to be more structured than in other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The specific sub-Reddit thread was centered on work issues. Using the program R, they gathered a list of more than 3,900 comments related to remote work after searching for terms such as “work from home,” “remote work” and “telecommute.” Aplin-Houtz evaluated the sentiment and emotion of each comment and quantified the results.

He then conducted a Factorial ANOVA to compare the main effects of organizational justice perceptions, the temporal inclusion of Covid-19, the sentimental tone of comments associated with “work from home” and the interaction effect among all variables. The results highlighted the particular significance of informational justice.

“This is about telling the story of all the remote workers,” Aplin-Houtz said. “This is kind of a blending of qualitative and quantitative resources research, where we’re taking words and the comments that people are making, and we’re actually applying some math to it to be able to talk about it in a greater context.

“But part of this is we’re opening a door to make people actually talk about this more. It focuses the story on what really matters to employees.”

Both Lane and Aplin-Houtz see themselves as organizational justice researchers, though they arrived in the DBA program from very different backgrounds.

While Lane is already teaching in a college setting and returning to school to complete a doctorate after previously starting work on a PhD in industrial organizational psychology, Aplin-Houtz owns and operates a medical clinic in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is pursuing his DBA so he can transition into a career in academia, and he chose UMSL because of the strength of the program and its location, only a three-hour drive away.

Lane and Aplin-Houtz feel fortunate to have wound up in the same cohort and had the chance to work together.

“It was a perfect blend,” Lane said. “We were coming from different sides, and we’ve kind of come together and it’s like, ‘Oh.’ It took my paper to the next level, and it’s getting this method out there.”

They have submitted the paper for publication and are hopeful of receiving positive news from a journal in the next few months.

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