Article (June-2020)


Leaders need to define basic ground rules

Monika Navandar

Designation : -   Founder & MD

Organization : -  NeoSeven Solutions, Pune


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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?

MN There is a big mindset shift in terms of the bias whether working from home actually works. Leaders are developing trust in their people to work from home and world's leading Executives agree that there is no going back, the rapid changes taking place will be long-lasting for years to come.

Automobiles, Hospitality, and Manufacturing companies where work from home was unheard off are being forced to draft business continuity plans while ensuring the complete safety of their employees. Future business continuity plans will have to be evaluated keeping in mind these Black Swan events which could bring businesses to a grinding halt.

Traditionally, the financial and regulated sector did not let their employees work from home. Post COVID-19, many banking, finance and insurance companies such as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, ICICI are scrambling to define their work from home policies & programs. They had to enable their workforces to continue working remotely so their business and their customer's businesses run smoothly.

As organizations design robust work from home policies and processes, they need to curate the list of roles that could be done remotely, consider which remote work tools are right for them, what are the basic rules/norms in a remote setup, how do you build psychological safety for remote workers/teams and how do you keep the employees engaged despite the physical distance.

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?

MN The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted companies worldwide and as Josh Bersin says, it has created a "Big Reset". The forced virtual workplace has made remote work an integral part of our lives. Studies show that in USA alone, 40 million people will make "work from home" a regular part of their job in the future.

A significant shift took place for an often underestimated and underutilized practice of "work from home". Companies such as Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and Twitter are the major tech giants that implemented remote working for most or all of their employees, globally.

In a Gartner Inc. Survey, 317 CFOs and Finance leaders revealed that once the lockdown restrictions ease out, 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions.

Few companies who had multi-year digital transformation planned, had to switch gears and made it happen in 2-3 weeks' time to keep their businesses running. Companies in the manufacturing set-up are now fast-forwarding their digital transformation journey and considering IOT solutions to keep their factories and plants operating with minimum human requirement. And finally, companies with old school practices have begun their digital transformation journey.

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

MN The Pandemic has caught most organizations on the back foot as they are scrambling to get the technology infrastructure in place for enabling work from home. Employees and leaders who were used to coffee machine/ water cooler discussions, bouncing off ideas across desks, or face to face meetings are now relying on Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, etc. While these tools are a part of the overall enterprise plan, employees are ill equipped in using these tools; most of them are wired to the traditional methods of working. The Chief Learning Officer of Novartis, Simon Brown shared in a webcast that the #1 learning material in Novartis during the pandemic is "How to Use Microsoft Teams", followed by "Time Management: Working From Home".

In a recent Gartner Asia Pacific webinar snap poll, 91% of HR leaders indicated that for WFH, the biggest challenge stems from the lack of technology infrastructure and lack of comfort with new ways of working. Home internet networks are not enabled to support the high-volume requirement of office Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and often get disrupted due to high load, causing a lot of distress and disturbance during virtual meetings. Apart from meetings, teams need to be creative and figure out how to collaborate on shared presentations, shared documents, working on confidential information, etc.

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?

MN Trust is of utmost importance for any relationship to work. It is high time that leaders focus on the results/output rather than the number of hours. Personally, I have been working remotely for the past 6 plus years, I have been a remote employee and as an employer now, my entire team works from home.

Speaking about the most important topic, Culture - While working remotely, people work as best they can and often need help or have defined boundaries that they would be available only at a certain time. Hence, as a leader, you need to be flexible and accommodating.

Managers and leaders need to define basic ground rules of whether your employees need your approval for every decision they make. Do they need to copy everyone on every message they send in emails or MS Teams? Is communicating 1:1 more productive? Do you need to update your manager every hour? Do we have a weekly video conference call to catch-up? How to induct new employees? How do you recognize success or a major event in someone's life?

As a leader, you need to work out all these cultural issues and provide psychological safety to employees, so they speak up and voice their opinion and as a result they are more engaged and productive.

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

MN The role of HR department is changing as they rise up to the occasion of managing the crisis and enabling their employees to continue working. HR needs to ease out the transition of remote working and manage communication around employee concerns on the infection. As HR leaders plan for times in the new normal, they would need to come with a plan for utilizing the office spaces, evaluate possibilities of staggered working, employee safety, whether the organization needs to constitute a formal crisis management team who is regularly trained on the subject, etc.

They need to optimize the organisation structure to suit the new business requirements and design a number of policies/processes/practices around work from home, paid time off in case of infected employees being quarantined, travel policies considering the travel restrictions, pay for hourly workers for reduced work hours, rules for meetings, whether handshakes will be allowed, hazard pay, mitigating impact in case of damage/theft of office devices in remote set-up, ensuring safety of employees who choose to volunteer during the crisis, on-boarding new employees in a virtual set-up, etc.

While HR manages the hiring freeze, layoffs, online learning solutions, it is extremely important to not lose sight on building psychological safety for remote workers/teams and employee experience - managing employees' anxiety, motivation, engagement and well-being that impacts their productivity.

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

MN Psychological safety and resilience is key to keep virtual teams engaged and productive. Apart from setting the rules and norms for remote set-up, it is important that people turn up their videos during meetings. It is good to start the conversation by speaking about things not related to work such as the weather or the weekend. This helps people engage and build relationships.

Practice setting clear expectations and timelines for projects focus on the results/output instead of the number of hours. Remember remote work is relentless, you start working the minute you wake up, and you keep on checking /replying to your emails/messages before going to bed. So, setting boundaries, being respectful of others' timings and discipline go a long way; make sure you don't end up working 18-20 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Organizations can conduct regular pulse surveys to see how their people are doing, enhance their employee assistance programs, make coaches and medical advisors available in a virtual set-up, boost the IT support to help people with their tech problems, tie-up with platforms that provide people with wellbeing support. Leaders may help people maintain their employee's energy, focus, and wellbeing by sharing tips and resources on energy, fitness and resilience.

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

MN Work from home enables flexibility and work life balance. Employees have more time on hand as they save time on commute, dressing up, office time distractions and similar things. Organizations get access to global talent pool that may come at a cheaper price, they save money on office spaces and all the other set-up required for in-person working. Organizations can be creative in terms of employment relationships and the work that needs to be done, instead of full-time employees, it may be project-based gig-work.

The challenges are many, right from availability of stable internet connection to employee's emotional well-being. Employees may experience a lot of stress, anxiety and frustration due to poor internet connectivity. There may be lack of belongingness or the fear of not updating your manager every minute of what you are doing. Some employees may feel lonely due to the lack of physical interactions; humans are after all social animals. For managers and leaders, it may be difficult to monitor their employee's performance, their productivity while keeping them engaged. Since majority of the worldwide workforce is learning how to work remotely, they are experiencing stress, anxiety, burn-out and are overwhelmed with the immense number of tips, resources, meetings and webinars coming their way.

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

MN Threat to data security is controlled when employees work in a secure company environment. However, when employees are made to work from home, individuals and organizations could be the next victim of cyber criminals.

Many organizations have not been able to scale up their IT policies to ensure the same set of security measures for company owned laptops, mobiles and devices irrespective of the connection - Open home WIFI or company VPN. The vigilance of the IT team and the firewalls created on the organization servers need to be increased manifold especially given the fact that home WIFIs can be infected with malware or there may be compromised hardware that could be potentially used to infiltrate.

Organizations need to emphasize and build rigor among their employees to regularly install the security patches and follow the IT security drill. Learning from tech giants such as TCS' Secure Borderless Workspaces Infrastructure would also help.