Home / News / Business Of Life /  When COVID-19 touches the office

When Dimple Ranpara told her team to work from home last Wednesday, she was expecting some disruption but not this one—anxiety. “If I didn’t respond to an email immediately, people started getting anxious about why I wasn’t talking to them," says Ranpara, who took the precaution of asking her 55-member team to stay home as coronavirus cases came to light in Delhi-NCR.

“In the office, people can see when I’m in a meeting and know I am busy, but working from home can lead to some communication gaps," says Ranpara, who heads the venture capital and fintech business at SaaS company Wizikey in Gurugram. “We have to find ways to quickly learn to adapt and deal with a different way of working," she adds.

As the number of cases of novel coronavirus rises, more organizations are asking employees to work from home to contain its spread. Across the world, companies like Apple, Amazon, Ford and Twitter have instructed employees to work from home, but no firm really has a playbook to deal with this kind of emergency. In India, Cognizant has temporarily shut its Hyderabad office, and Paytm has closed its Gurugram office for about a fortnight after one employee tested positive for the virus. But migrating such large numbers of employees to work-from-home schedules overnight has thrown up its own challenges.

A recent study by consulting firm Mercer says 51% of companies worldwide have no plans or protocols in place to combat this global emergency. The survey shows 27.2% of companies do not have a business continuity plan in place, and nearly 24% are currently in the process of drafting one. Having a business continuity plan makes it possible to carry on operations while ensuring the organization is least affected when facing a disaster.

Mumbai-based Angel Broking is one of the few that has drawn up a contingency plan. Last week, the team tested its disaster recovery site. “In the event of an emergency, our systems will be shifted from our office in Andheri to Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City, Navi Mumbai, and a unit in Hyderabad. While the backend may get affected, the trading system will continue and customers won’t be inconvenienced," says Subhash Menon, chief human resource and learning officer, Angel Broking.

Remote working has become fairly common, but for a majority of employees, time in the office is a must for meetings, scheduling and getting deep work done.

“In our line of work, we have to meet startup founders and investors face to face. I’ve had to postpone funding talks with a startup because we can’t schedule a real-world meeting right now. Work is getting held up," says Chittransh Verma, assistant vice-president, Atal Incubation Centre-Bimtech in Greater Noida.

Verma and his six-member team have been working from home for the past week. Apart from running the 70-seater incubation centre, Verma’s team is part of a micro-venture capital fund for early startups, Fluid Ventures. Even though meetings have moved to Google Hangouts, Zoom and WhatsApp, Verma, who usually takes about six meetings a day, says deeper conversations require face-to-face meetings and interactions.

Team leads have had to figure out ways to deal with problems that crop up when people used to office spaces suddenly have to work from their dining tables. “Scheduling meeting times and understanding deep work mode is difficult at home," says Wizikey’s Ranpara. “I have started blocking my time on a public calendar to let people know I am busy right now and will get back to you soon."

She and her team use Slack and Zoom regularly, and the company has a culture of “huddles" or mini-meetings of five to 10 minutes to update one another.

“Since we are all working remotely now, these huddles take up more time in the first half of the day. Then, I do a follow-up call at 6pm to see that everything is fine and there are no red flags," explains Ranpara. Depending on the situation, her company will decide whether to continue with this arrangement after 10 March.

In Hyderabad, recruitment and staffing services firm CIEL HR told its staff to work from home from last Wednesday after an employee from a consultancy in the same tech park their office is in was suspected of having contracted the virus.

Rupal Kanchan, regional business head of CIEL HR, says team leads monitored everyone’s work real time using Google Hangouts and Sheets and WhatsApp.

“We would set the pace at the beginning of the day, at 9.30. The team leads would report their respective team’s plan of action. Throughout the day we would be in touch," says Kanchan. But remote working wouldn’t work if the client schedules a meeting. On Friday, the team went ahead with a client audit even though the employees couldn’t step into their office.

“Fortunately, it all went smoothly. But if we have to continue working from home for more than a week, it would affect the performance of junior team members who need mentoring," she says. They returned to office on Tuesday after their office was sanitized.

This is a concern that heads of companies, large or small, are facing—what to do if the situation forces people to work remotely for a longer duration.

“We don’t know how long we will be working from home. We will decide next week how long to continue this arrangement," says Verma. “The situation seems as unpredictable as the stock market."

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