Article (June-2020)


Compulsive WFH has now turned into a potential opportunity

Kamal Karanth

Designation : -   Co- Founder

Organization : -  Xpheno, Bengaluru


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How COVID-19 is going to impact the work of future and what can be the framework of work from home model?

KK The impact of COVID19 on the work of the future should be looked at in 2 timeframes a) short-term &tactical b) long-term & strategic. The short-term tactical impact is that of the enterprises testing their agility in calibrating to new realities. For the workforce, the short-term impact is a shifting of their productivity gears to keep themselves relevant to the enterprise's fight to stay afloat.

The long term impact, however, is the classification of businesses that are 'Social Distancing Proof' and 'WFH proof.' Business models and USPs are being tested for feasibility and resilience in the most unfamiliar territory. The end of COVID, optimistically stating, will see a genre of businesses that can weather the toughest and strangest of storms in the market. Entrepreneurs who entered the fray as cities went into the lockdown will either be sharpening their venture models or revisiting their decisions in the current scheme of things. Either way, it would not be an extraordinary exaggeration to state that the spirit of entrepreneurship will be a tad low immediately after COVID.

Do you think that work from home has been a compulsive opportunity created by Covid for organisations during crisis? Can it be long term viable solution?

KK 'Compulsive Opportunity,' in my opinion, is a bit of an oxymoron in the enterprise space. However, WFH was definitely compulsive to start with, and much later turned into a potential Opportunity.  The astonishing speed and unforeseen scale in which COVID battered the shores created a shock and awe moment for organisations. Left with little or no time to respond, enterprises and start-ups, irrespective of their familiarity with WFH, took to it as a forced adventure to stay afloat. For most organisations that earlier considered WFH as a perk, WFH arrived like manna from heaven. Retaining customers, servicing them, keeping employees productive, and the leadership intact required these companies to rehearse WFH and get on stage forth play quickly.

As for WFH being a long term viable solution, the fact remains that 'solutions' are needed when facing a problem or a situation. Touting WFH as a permanent solution to currently unknown future challenges would be myopic. When the lockdown is lifted, and social mobility resumes, the dynamics of the situation will demand organisations to be at the top of their game. Enterprises that would have reinvented themselves during the lockdown with WFH as a core aspect of their business will look forward to continuing their model. On the other hand, traditional organisations that find the lockdown to be claustrophobic will wave goodbye to WFH and rush to the work-floor. TCS seems to have converted this into an opportunity. It looks like Cognitive work will find long term space and work that requires hands and legs may need to find new ways to deliver.

What will define the longevity of WFH as a solution is an effect it has on employees in the current situation of extended uncertainty. Long lockdown periods will redefine what work and work floors mean to an employee. Whether this redefinition will be in favour of or against WFH is clearly an unknown at this point.

How much remote working readiness has been achieved by Indian organisations and how workplace relationship will be redefined in such organisations?

KK Remote working despite being around for a long time was never done on the scale that we currently see it being done. Most IT Companies had WFH running even before Covid more like discretion or a perk than a policy. 50% of Leaders have opined that they have benefitted from WFH even before Covid. Covid gave everybody that opportunity. Even large MNCs were caught off-guard by the scale on post Covid WFH transition. Companies shipping desktop PCs to employees' homes to ensure continuity and regulatory confidentiality are no more a strange sight. Young start-ups that once prided over their sense of community and co-working quickly switched to solitary workspaces with virtual meet ups without complaining. Workspace relationships are definitely in for a change in the current situation. Meetings are rarely vocal and conflicts seem to be a rarity in remote working format. One can very well attribute this to the novelty factor and give a 'wait for a while longer' smirk. On the positive side, we are all possibly getting a crash course on productive conflicts and might wake up to a less stressful work-floor post lockdown.

What is important- 9 to 5 office work culture or work output? What organisations should do to ensure better productivity adopting work from home model?

KK Flexi hours, WFH, and telecommuting have seen better days where they came in handy to ensure continuity during a personal exigency. Executing these in a forced large scale format has mostly removed the charm of them. The 9 to 5 work culture lost its sheen and meaning with the arrival of data mobility that saw work shadowing the employees 24/7. As archaic as it sounds, the 9 to 5 work culture predominantly got confined to specific sectors and enterprises in the public service space. While 9 to 5 work times provide a structure to organizing one's work and family time, it is not an assurance for productivity. With the average productive hours of employees ranging between 3 to 5 hours a day, enterprises have found it easier to insist and measure output rather than physical timed presence. For every 'Yes' to flex working, there is a 'No' from Companies that moved from Flexi working to 9 to 5 model after the former model failed in their context.

Ensuring productivity in the WFH scenario is all about maintaining structure, routines, and rituals that worked for the organisation pre lockdown. From morning huddles, sprint meetings of the past today stock-taking, ensuring communication, and follow-ups are more essential. Structured and stated delivery expectations are critical to build and retain focus in what is mostly a distraction prone work arrangement.

What kind of problems and challenges will be faced in future and how HR should prepare to meet while implementing WFH?

KK Returning to the work-floor post lockdown after an extended WFH will have its own challenges of breaking habits. For most people, WFH has meant a change in timing for personal chores, dressing up for work, meals and coffee breaks, and, most importantly, getting used to not having colleagues around. As simple as these sound, breaking these and going back to an earlier known work format is definitely easier said than done. It's quite possible that if people come back to work the first week may even be non productive.

If projections are right, we are an easy 12 to 18 months away from seeing full work-floors and busy commutes. The challenges of the HR function range from tactical issues like time and attendance to more profound challenges of employee wellness and mental health. My heart goes out to employees who are away from families and hometowns, holed up in their hostels and PG rooms. HR should definitely prepare to re-engage and re-orient employees when the lockdown draws to a close, and employees adapt to shed their WFH mode. Any future implementation of WFH while easy due to familiarity will still be a challenge in the absence of a broader overarching context and forced need.

What requires to be done in keeping virtual teams engaged and productive and bring sense of togetherness?

KK The human race is known to draw support and energy from collective action in the face of adversity and joint suffering. An overall sense of community, togetherness, and camaraderie is currently seen driving a collective organisation building, despite being virtual. The incentives of making WFH work for all are high at this point, as it also means reducing potential exposure to the virus lingering in social spaces like public transport and office floors. These factors have made way for a self-powered model of employee engagement and community building. In place of sizeable physical team building engagements, smaller microcosms with a common interest and shared experiences have emerged. Apart from HR co-ordinated virtual events, smaller teams have created their own rituals and events to connect and communicate outside the realm of work. Engaging the team in collective learning and virtual town hall sessions will help sustain interest in company organized team building. How about dedicated calls just for gossip and fun at Anthakshari over zoom?

What can be the positive and negative effect of WFH on company work culture?

KK Companies are seen to be more connected and collaborating in a slightly strange and intriguing way. Remote working on this scale has rarely been done before, and the presence of a common reason is the binding factor. From an earlier purpose of building and progressing the Companies, teams are now collaborating to stay afloat against business and livelihood loss. With conservation as the key, survival is all about squeezing maximum productivity despite the adverse physical situation and inconveniences. This sense of common purpose, combined with a common threat, has brought teams closer in whichever size and mode possible. In the short term conflicts which used to lead to loss of engagement and productivity have disappeared.

The positive effect on work culture is one of accomplishing on time and remaining relevant to the enterprise. Employees are seen going into their silos of productivity for certain parts of the day and collaborating with others in other slots. However, a potential adverse effect of extended WFH is the muscle memory of working in confined spaces, devoid of distraction, and socializing. For every individual who is yearning to socialize, there is another who is getting used to being a productive recluse. Bringing together these diverse sets of people with their respective baggage from the lockdown will be a severe challenge. Redefining and rebuilding the work culture is non-negotiable, and how well this is done will make or break the organisation.

Can use of excessive technology to make WFH workable also bring the cyber and IPR threats to business organisations and how to mitigate such threats?

KK Enterprises were caught off-guard by the forced WFH and had little time to prepare or test their readiness for a large scale secure remote working arrangement. With domestic broadband and personal mobile hotspots as the backbone for WFH, the exposure to cyber threats is real and present. Enterprises have a mammoth task on hand to tackle this potentially untameable risk. IPR threats, on the other hand, are predominantly employee-driven. As poetic as it may sound, the best protection against an IPR threat is the loyal employee-driven by commitment and integrity to the organisation. Either way, organisations are doing all the right things in their might to protect both infrastructure and data from all threats lurking around. Getting into the second and potentially third month of lockdown will see more organisations investing to secure their systems and hold the employee closer to avert the threats.