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The past few weeks have shown how a pandemic can generate widespread panic and necessitate the need to shift gears with speed. The agility of organizations is being tested in ways that we have rarely seen before. This is a classic black swan event, a high-impact, hard-to-predict, rare event, unfolding, and the acid test for all business continuity plans.

At the heart of this particular black swan event is the individual, whether an employee, a vendor partner or a customer. While companies and nations have suspended travel and implemented protocols for containing Covid-19, the strongest proactive health advisory being given to #flattenthecurve is social distancing, or avoiding large gatherings and maintaining a safe distance from others when you’re outside. For companies, if an individual has been exposed to the virus, it means vacating the office, fumigating and sanitizing it and letting people back in only after a required interval.

This means dislocating of work spaces for employees. But work has to continue from somewhere, and this is when companies are turning to the familiar work-from-home (WFH) or telecommuting. Telecommuting has long been the panacea for widening the talent pool, improving workforce retention (especially for women, who get hit with the 3Ms, marriage, spouse mobility and maternity), and reducing pressure on urban infrastructure such as roads, real estate and transport.

A love-hate bond

WFH has a love-hate relationship with organizations. While it is usually among the most celebrated policies for a great place to work and signals a cool work environment, it has more than its fair share of nay-sayers, especially among employers. Take a 2016 survey, for instance, where 60% of the employers have stated they do not have a formal WFH policy. About 55% of the employers say they are not very comfortable with WFH and 70% believe it hampers productivity. About 40% say lack of control is the biggest challenge and 80% state they don’t have a tracking mechanism to manage WFH.

But then there are exact opposite viewpoints in the same survey through the lens of employees with 90% welcoming such a policy and 42% stating that the place they work from doesn’t matter.

In a 2019 survey by Indeed, 48% of employees said they would consider switching jobs for greater flexibility and 53% were ready to take a pay cut for working from a remote place and 56% said that flexibility made them more productive. Last year, a study by Airtasker found a key difference between office and remote work—those who worked remotely worked 1.4 days more every month and spent more time getting things done, a clear indication of higher productivity.

So, is the work-from-home policy here to stay? The gig economy has already proved that where you work does not count. Meetings, deadlines, training, even appraisal discussions can all be location agnostic. But the pandemic has now extended it to digital-only conferences and summits and virtual recruiting, which may be the first of many changes in the months to come. Further, with the unplanned shutdown of educational institutions and daycare to control the spread of the virus, working parents have been caught off-guard and companies will need to be swift in responding to this tsunami, by implementing solutions like mandatory working from home.

Some companies routinely allow working from home once a week or have a system of capping it per month. The companies that have mastered it are thriving. “The work from home system is so mature in our organization, it is business as usual for us even in this crisis," says one leader. But not every organization has this know-how.

What then constitutes such maturity? Policies that are time tested and have built-in guardrails to prevent misuse. Employees and managers with high personal work ethic and discipline, and systems and tools (like Slack, Zoom, and Skype) that allow for collaborative working. Governments, too, have a big role to play in this. For instance, removing the work-from-home restrictions under the other service providers (OSP) regime will significantly help the cause.

WFH cannot thrive in letter and spirit without leadership that walks the talk and actively champions remote working. This means unambiguous and clear communication. It also means empowering local and at-ground-zero leaders to take steps on what is the right thing to do and trusting them to run the show. To master WFH, managers themselves will need to master time management. Training first-line managers and managers of managers on how to operate a team that is geographically spread out and works remotely is central to the success of this new normal. Remote working will not work without managers who have the rigour of rewarding and assessing for results and not for effort, or for output and not for presence.

Engaging employees who WFH will mean using digital platforms to ensure there are enough opportunities for team members to connect and collaborate with each other.

Show and tell

Of course, WFH is not always possible and will primarily apply to roles that lend themselves to remote working more easily than roles that mandate a presence at office, like facilities, security, BPOs or shop floor staff. Furthermore, there are also roles, which owing to client restrictions, cannot work remotely.

For such a workforce, the best practices of “show and tell", that is communication, awareness building, fumigating, discontinuing biometrics, distributing masks, sanitizing and the visible presence of medical support and expert points of view, has to deployed meticulously.

In times such as these, for roles that do not have access to laptops, the organization can either arrange for and distribute laptops or implement a BYOD (bring your own device) programme, with the organization providing the necessary technical infrastructure. Medical coverage, paid sick leave and maybe even leave exchange could help tide over this crisis.

For the individual, this presents a chance of perfecting the work-from-home rigour with technology as an able facilitator. For organizations, this is a huge opportunity that needs to be embraced to reap the benefits of remote working. A case in point is a study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom in 2017, which found higher productivity and lower attrition rates among telecommuters as against those in office.

For a policy that was to be used sparingly, it has indeed come a long way. This may be preparing us for the future of work, although this isn’t exactly how the journey was imagined. The task for organizations, HR and leaders is to keep the individual’s welfare at the forefront in these trying times. It is a great opportunity to re-examine the traditional concept of work-in-office and recalibrate if the time for change has well and truly arrived.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and advisory board member for several organizations.

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