Covid-19 has created a huge disruption in the way many of us work - the place we work from, the hours of work, the tools we use to work, the way we work with others and how we manage the work of others. Covid 19 constitutes a major point of inflection and some of the changes brought about by Covid-19 will come to stay, even after covid. The nature of work and workplace is undergoing a huge transformation and HR has to be in the forefront driving this change.
The new normal of work and workplace beyond covid
Outside the technology companies, "work from home" was not an option available before covid, and even in technology companies, the option was available only for certain roles. Working from home, which became a necessity during the lockdown will became a matter of choice. It is likely to stay beyond covid for many support positions and part of the managerial roles where it was previously not thought feasible, and will in future become the new normal. This will be the single most important trend that will become the new normal post covid. As many of us were forced to work from home during the lockdown, the realization has dawned on us that it is possible to effectively get a lot of work done without physically being in the office. This means getting the job done will become more important than just clocking the hours. Trust and transparency will be at a premium in the new world. Control should give way to influence. How work is supervised would need to change. And HR has a crucial part in ensuring a smooth transition to this new normal.
Workplaces are likely to get redesigned to make them more suitable for flexible work arrangements. Instead of having fixed chairs and tables in the office for people, we could end up with a flexible arrangement where anyone who comes to work physically in the office on a particular day can occupy any chair that is open. Also, the cubicles can ideally be made transparent so employees do not get a feeling of isolation.
Role of HR in creating a new work culture and the use of technology
Technology can be a key enabler in moving to this new culture. HR would need to be more tech savvy and use all the available tools of technology to help organizations and people through this transformation. HR can take the help of all the digital tools available for employee hiring, employee engagement, performance management, team collaboration, employee reporting and employee services. However, technology is only a bunch of tools to facilitate the work of HR. HR would need to establish the new culture, the requisite processes and the appropriate policies for remote working.
More than anything else, HR would have to come up with innovative ideas on how remote work can be best supervised. This should cover the whole gamut of supervision such as how is work allocated, how is guidance provided to employees, how can the progress of work be monitored, what kind of reporting mechanism should be established, how is the quality of output evaluated, how is coaching and feedback best delivered, what new motivation tools should be deployed, how to appraise the employee's performance and how to ensure the reward is appropriate. And at the same time, HR has to balance the emphasis on productivity and reporting while still maintaining a high degree of trust and empowerment.
Strategies and initiatives for employees in the short and long term
Across the 9P dimensions of people management in an organization, HR must come up with innovative ideas in the world of the new normal, to make the digital transformation of organizations successful:
i) Pattern of work: We would have to divide the nature of work into three categories : 1) those that can be done completely remotely without any impact on effectiveness 2) those that would need physical presence partly and for the remaining portion, can be done remotely and 3) those work which can only be carried out with a physical presence. Once this exercise is completed, people would have to be allocated to the respective jobs. And HR would need to manage the mismatch between work requirement and employee preference. HR would need to appropriately address requests from one set of people asked to report physically but who prefer to work from home and another group whose work can be done remotely but who prefer to come to office and do the work due to issues with the environment and infrastructure at home. As the work gets allocated across the company, the focus needs to not only be on suiting the person for the job, but also on suiting the job for each person. Organizations also need to be redesigned to make them flat and more hierarchical with a much wider span of control.
ii) Placement of people: There is an opportunity to scale up the hiring of people by using a host of digital tools to obtain CVs, screen them, assess them through online tests, and virtually interview them saving cost and time for placement.
iii) Planning work and workforce: Based on the work requirements, the mix of people working remotely and working physically needs to be dynamically arrived at and the arrangements in the workplace organized accordingly. Further, HR can create a talent database with talent in the market on tap on a contractual basis as and when needed for certain short term and special requirements.
iv) Partnering with employees: One of the key functions of HR is employee engagement. In an environment where some of the employees would be working remotely, this becomes more challenging. HR must continuously connect and partner with the employees to understand their physical and especially mental well-being, and help them address any challenges. This is very important in the absence of the social connect that is available in the office.
v) Priming people: Priming people for success in their current role and preparing them for future roles should not be lost sight of in a remote work environment. Employees should be encouraged to take the initiative for learning and HR can provide them a variety of virtual platforms tailored for customized learning and getting support on mentoring and personal development.
vi) Performance Management: Performance appraisal would have to shift entirely to outcome based instead of activity based or input based. New guidelines would have to be framed for performance appraisal and both employees and their supervisors trained on the new appraisal methodology.
vii) Pay and Benefits: Pay for some of the people doing remote work would have to be re-imagined to link pay to outcomes rather than the hours worked. Variable pay would take on a whole new meaning for such people. Again, the benefits would have to be innovatively restructured. For example, conveyance allowance could be withdrawn while allowances for home connectivity, ergonomic work furniture at home, and maybe even a home office allowance may be considered.
viii) Policy relook: Some of the HR policies which would not have envisaged the situation of so many people working from home, may have to be redrafted including aspects like personal privacy, official data protection, harassment (for example, do you consider the home office as part of office area for determining harassment) etc.
ix) People Services: The entire gamut of services provided by HR from entry to exit needs to get digitized in many more organizations.
Once processes for the above are established, technology tools can be adopted or customised for the work to be done virtually. The virtual world of work calls for a lot of clarity and documentation of processes. HR would have to play a pivotal role in organizing the work flow documentation and creating elaborate procedure manuals.