While we debate about the uncertain future, the new work-from-home drill has impacted the professional work ethic for the better
In the middle of the 18th century, an earthquake hit the city of Lisbon. A tsunami followed soon after, and their combined forces devastated the city. Fires destroyed houses, libraries, palaces and churches. Thousands lost their lives. While the catastrophe shocked Europe, the response equally impressed them. With strong leadership, the city took upon the task of rebuilding itself, introducing new grid-like structures and buildings designed to withstand earthquakes. The crisis led to the birth of modern seismology.
The crisis we face today has far reaching repercussions, given its global footprint. It has led to a significant shift in the context of work. The earlier corporate discussion on the Future of Work, had a certain ceteris paribus (all other things being equal) overhang to it mainly because none of us had ever been in a situation like the one we are experiencing right now.
But even as there is uncertainty, apprehension and debate on what the future will hold, there are silver linings and, I believe, newer, positive benefits to organizational culture and behaviour that need to be called out and acknowledged.
Everyone has had a crash course in work from home (WFH). Though adopted in different degrees, it has become the new normal. HO is no longer head office but more likely Home & Office. With the blurring of these distinct spaces, compounded with management of children at home, multitasking has taken on newer, more complex dimensions. Diaper changes, stirring the cooking pot and getting on the conference call come to mind. Some swear that the traditional eight-hour workday has given way to longer hours. Many are resonating with Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith and inquiring, “What’s a weekend?"
Yet, the WFH phenomenon has had an impact on key elements of the work ethic for the better. Individuals are self-monitoring, taking greater accountability for deliverables. Employees are learning to work the right protocols for WFH, taking necessary steps to formalize their workstations and addressing irritants like noisy pets and whistling pressure cookers. Managers who have had a traditional anathema to the WFH concept, have had to learn to quickly come to terms with managing remote work and forget walk-by-desk conversations and decision making. More importantly, to trust their employees, the first prerequisite for effective collaboration.
In the learning and development world, one of the activities to facilitate team collaboration is Minefield, where teams of two, with one person blindfolded, attempt to walk a “minefield" safely. It’s a classic one for building trust. The current situation has in a sense created that minefield-like situation and led to more trust and collaboration among teams, between managers and their teams and also in cross-functional teams.
What’s more, comfortable with the new normal and the productivity gains, more employees and some managers are now indicating and requesting for WFH options even in the ACE (After Corona Era).
The digital-first mindset has pervaded all aspects of the enterprise value chain. While this has already been agitating management minds in the reach to the customer and the investor, it has also become centre stage for all aspects of the employee lifecycle. This approach has already seen an unprecedented increase in the e-learning modules that companies are deploying—upskilling and reskilling, thereby embracing the culture of continuous learning while also managing individual downtime efficiently. Performance review discussions, even while most increment decisions are on hold, are all online. As is the annual budgeting and planning processes.
This brings me to the much-deserved attention that companies are bringing to employee care and support. Online counselling, catering to different employee demographics, and active experimentation of digital and social media handles for Leader Speak sessions are all the rage. Leaders are actively communicating with employee groups, both primary and secondary (contingent or franchisee staff), displaying transparency, vulnerability and above all, empathy. It is opening channels for two-way communication and encouraging employees to write in with suggestions and in a way, allowing them to be part of the recovery thought process.
Employee engagement is now more inhabiting the online space and taking on wellness overtones. We are already seeing companies launch employee assistance programmes, or telemedicine consultations. Newer behaviours like leaders checking-in on the wellbeing of their teams on a daily basis, team leads hosting gratitude challenges or online fitness challenges signal a culture of care and support. In leading organizations the erstwhile role of chief fun officer is transitioning into chief worry officer, taking all aspects of employee care.
Of course, organizations are adopting frugality and doing more with less. Currently, austerity measures are pushing companies to look at leave without pay options, increasing the length of shifts, reviewing insurance policies to cover pandemics and relooking the numbers who should fall in performance improvement plans, all within legal frameworks. Productivity norms and inefficiencies in the system are being closely examined. In stellar organizations, such austerity measures are also being led from the front with leaders and senior management opting for complete pay-cuts or much higher salary cuts, shielding their teams and thus taking on more of the pain. James Lane Allen, an American novelist profoundly stated, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it." As organizations prepare to tide over this crisis, a culture of innovation is being embraced, allowing for chaos and focus, play and discipline, success and failure to co-exist.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and advisory board member for several organizations.