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Photo: Ravindra Joshi/ Mint
Photo: Ravindra Joshi/ Mint

As hierarchies flatten and banter thrives, colleagues feel at home

  • The covid-19 outbreak has forced people to maintain a physical distance from the office
  • Technology and the almost-universal feeling of uncertainty have done what most open plan workspaces couldn’t

NEW DELHI: Jason Misquitta, 30, has never met the team he works with in real life; yet, he says, in five weeks of working from home for a new company he’s bonded with colleagues better than any team he’s spent years with.

Misquitta joined short video platform Firework the day the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24. He had to adapt quickly to the new “office"—a laptop and video calls in a corner of his house—and has met his colleagues and boss only on Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp. But, he says, communication is easier from the home office, and he asks his boss the smallest of queries over a text or an impromptu call. “I would have thought twice about going to his cabin and doing that if we were in the office."

The covid-19 outbreak has forced people to maintain a physical distance from the office, but technology and the almost-universal feeling of uncertainty have done what most open plan workspaces couldn’t—flatten hierarchies and make colleagues connect emotionally.

“We have group calls to talk about things other than work. People show up with dirty hands from gardening or a spatula from the kitchen," laughs Misquitta. “I know everyone better than I would have if we had we worked together in the office."

His boss, Sunil Nair, India chief executive and MD of Firework, admits that communication has become more casual. The beauty of this work-from-home exercise, he says, is that “there’s happy banter, virtual parties, and a voluntary professional approach to work. Nobody is micromanaging anyone. Nobody is hesitant to ask anything; there’s no junior or senior." One employee asked a question about their jobs being in danger on the company’s WhatsApp group. “I put them at ease immediately. I can’t imagine that level of frankness in a conversation in the office," says Nair, 48.

Debashis Chaterjee, director of IIM-Kozhikode, says the flattening of hierarchies has been happening for a while with the switch to open plan offices, but has been accelerated by the lockdown. “It’s not just the designation that makes a boss a boss. There’s that aura around them—the corner cabin, the taller chair. Now, all that has disappeared; everyone is behind a phone or a laptop. So everyone is equal," he says.

Chaterjee is quick to add that hierarchies will always exist. “You need a leader to avoid chaos; we are wired that way. Right now, the structures of communication are getting flat. Even introverts, who could be great problem solvers but stayed quiet in the office, are participating openly," he says.

Pavan Mocherla, MD, India & South Asia of medical technology company BD, has seen a spike in responses when he posts a query on the office Yammer group. He’s had two town halls in the past month compared to just one a year previously. “There’s certainly more free-flowing communication now. People are giving feedback; associates introduce their families, pets; they post videos of themselves playing music. This wouldn’t have happened if we were in the office," says Mocherla, 50.

This lockdown has brought us together more, affirms Namita Singh, associate director (medical affairs), who reports to Mocherla. “We were always an engaged team but now we have deeper conversations. That’s a silver lining during these days of isolation."

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