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What leaders need to know about WFH during the Pandemic

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Nazia Zabin Memon - Research Assistant, Organisational Behaviour & Human Resource Management Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur

05-Jun-2020

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The WFH cannot be left on an auto pilot mode. The leaders need to go above and beyond their job description and organisational role to keep the workforce functional.

Personalised communication- Organisations often maintain a channel of communication with the employees through frequent emails and newsletters, to disseminate information, and to generate a sense of belongingness; but these approaches are impersonal and are shot en masse. In this troubled period, employees are working from their homes, isolated from their work ambience and social life, without any coffee corner chit-chats or lunch breaks with colleagues to unwind. The social lubricant induced by their workplace and colleagues is lacking. In this period of isolation, it is ideal for the leaders or the immediate supervisor to connect with their employees at a more personal level and to take up the role of figurehead. Weekly teleconferencing with team members to follow up on their well-being and whereabouts could go a long way to boost employees morale as well as their organisational commitment.

Keeping it relaxed- When we say that show must go on, the core idea subsumed in this adage is empathy. Organisations are going all out to function at100% efficiency to not hit the rock bottom but, it is equally important to understand that the employees are not in the most prolific mental state to work at 100% efficiency. They are infrastructurally underprepared with multiple work challenges like high propensity of miscommunications in virtual teams, poor team cohesiveness, work delegation etc. With a looming health scare, increased household workload and uncertainty about future, all are enervating their vigour. Hence, its alright to relax the deadlines wherever possible, its alright to not sprint but keep walking, its alight to let them close their laptops early.

Addressing their fears- Due to the severe jolt to the economy owing to global shutdowns, jobs are being slashed and offers retracted. There is a cast of anxiety and fear looming on the minds of employees that maybe they might lose their jobs, experience pay cuts, or, at the least, face an uncertain future in the economic slump. Such environment of mental strain not just impact their productivity, it also deteriorates their well-being. Its the need of the hour that they are given access to authentic, reliable as well as useful information regarding what their future with the organization is going to be like. This information has to come from their visible leaders in the organization. Times indeed are difficult; however, disowning the employees through mass layoffs, pay cuts, etc. at such a fragile time is definitely not a sustainable solution. This alone can secure smooth functioning of the organizations work. It is time for the leaders to be more sensitive and compassionate.

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Mass salary cut may not be the answer- In the face of discouraging profit graphs and lack of new business; it is easy to fall into the trap of mass salary cuts. However, that might not help improving the situation. When people are already aware that bonuses and promotions are on an indefinite delay, away cut would only nosedive their morale and poorly impact their psychological contract with the organization. The pandemic would disappear sooner or later, profits would start flowing in, employees would work harder to compensate, but the morale and a sense of identifying with the organization would take a much longer time to replenish. .Instead of cutting costs through pay cuts, alternative ways should be devised to source revenues. Few companies have been quick enough to sense the market and shift their businesses to producing items of mass importance during the pandemic.

Prioritising mental healthWe are leaving no stones unturned to combat this pandemic and protect our physical selves; however its effect on our mental health might be greatly neglected. Anxiety, stress, and depression are the most common psychological issues people are facing in general. It does not need a lot on the leaders behalf to be empathetic and to convey that organisations care for their people. Companies like Microsoft and Accenture have organised psychological counselling sessions for their employees and a dedicated helpline number during the COVID 19 pandemic to reach out when they feel their stress or anxiety is aggravating their daily lives.

Engaging them- The imposed WFH wave during the COVID 19 pandemic brings along with it a lack of access to social groups, workplace cliques, and informal get together. Although employees are working from their homes, they do not get the occasional breaks to unwind and may experience burn outfits an additional role thrust upon the leader to not let the unfamiliar waters of prolonged WFH turn negative outcomes. Keeping peoples excitement alive and giving them enough opportunities to relax and rejuvenate through activities like virtual team bonding sessions and sponsored online courses will make the employees feel more connected, and less depressed.

No one knows when will the world-wide lockdown end, but a few weeks into it, we now understand the reality better; we may not be able to go back to the pre-pandemic work life-style. There will be massive changes in the social behaviour, working pattern and how organisations function. As we cope with the pandemic week by week, its time the leaders have a contingency plan and prepare the workforce for a future requiring prolonged WFH, virtual teamwork, lesser onsite opportunities, lesser visibility, revamped appraisal system, home stationed workspace and redefined personal and social networking measures. By looking beyond the financial prudence and focusing on the emotional prudence, organizations will be better able to develop a sustainable solution. The financial capital could be built in the next few quarters but redeveloping the human capital could take many years.