Article (June-2020)

Articles

Managing flipside of WFH: Dangers ahead?

Dr. Virendra P. Singh

Designation : -   Advisor & Distinguished Professor

Organization : -  Gurugram

Other Writers : -  Meghna Singh - Learning & Organization Development professional with Max Life Insurance, Gurgaon

01-Jun-2020

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Background

Corona crisis has ushered, unwittingly, many new social norms and work practices world over. Working from Home (WFH) is just one of them.

We observe that companies have taken cognizance of primarily three sets of challenges, namely a) productivity of team working remotely, b) impact of WFH on team's ability to coordinate project tasks, c) reduced team efficiency and productivity. These are laudable work in progress yet few leaders have taken note of disorder, displacement and depression (caused by these new practices) manifesting at the new work place, the home. Home is one more official work place, now. This situation is akin to British rulers having two capitals, a summer capital and a winter capital.

Avoid the unmanageable: Manage the unavoidable

While delivering an extremely erudite seminar on adaptation to climate change during the winter of 2013 Charlie Kennel, former Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego USA suggested a two pronged strategy: a) avoid the unmanageable, and b) manage the unavoidable. Kennel focused on what could we expect from the climate in the coming decades, and what might we do? We draw upon the wisdom of Kennel to delineate a road map for an efficient and effective WFH strategy.

In retrospect, March- April 2020 lockdown at once pushed a large number of knowledge workers to work from home almost suddenly, quite smoothly and quite seamlessly. Though this class of workers, coming primarily from bureaucracy (across length and breadth of India), ever growing service industry, and educational institutions had occasional WFM exposure, a near total shift to WFH was incredibly faultless during this unprecedented crisis. This 'unavoidable' and its antecedents have been addressed fairly well by organizations.

WFH: What has been managed reasonably well?

As stated above, many organizations have managed the unavoidable quite well. They had to implement an organization-wide remote work policy for the first time and quickly. Notwithstanding some initial hiccups, a fairly commendable job was executed. HoweverJosh Bersin & his tribe lead the pack in ringing a warning bell; and CHROs across all spectrum shall have to heed them continuously and sincerely.

Josh Bersinhighlights five aspects of WFH Policy to manage this unavoidable (WFH) well.

1. Work tools - WFH employees need to have access to efficient technology at home that's integrated to save time and effort. They also need to know how breakdown and other contingencies shall be managed by team at corporate office.

2. Work rules - WFH employees need to know a) what technology their company will pay for, b) if the they have to dress up for conference calls, c) what needs to be done about compliance and personally identifiable data, d) how their managers shall mind the clockand the like.

3. Work norms - Supervising managers need to make work norms clear to WFH employees. For instance, a) are we going to always have video conference calls, which are mandatory, how often do you have to check-in with your boss, c) how employee performance shall be monitored?

4. Work culture - WFH employees need to know they are still part of a team and managers need to be able to trust that even remote teams will be efficient, which is a big issue for remote work.

5. Work life resilience - WFH employees need to understand how they can maintain a sense of productive and positive contribution when they are at home all day. Different practices will need to be defined and articulated. Sanjeev Mehta CEO HUL in an interesting chat with Ronnie Screwvala on Future of Work, Jobs and Career shared the concept of discipline, cadence and rhythm by supervising managers while interacting with their soldiers in WFH trenches. A good supervisor would be a) kind and curious, b) understand unique needs of employees, c) check how things are moving, d) make room for quiet soldiers.

Bersin however lamented that roughly half of the companies his firm surveyed did not have a remote work policy or program. Nonetheless, many organizations have acted and reacted quite promptly and it is a work in progress.

Avoid the unmanageable

There remains a few areas-issues-unmanageable WFH dimensions which cries hoarse for attention. These are brutal realities below our feet of WFH. If they remain unaddressed, tectonic social and personal upheavals are certainty. Cost of these unmanageable can be as harsh as climate change outcomes.

We share ten possibilities, trends or 'dark clouds' that can destroy the paddy of WFH. These trends are somewhat mild and soft in its manifestations and impact right now. However, our (corporate entities, social entities including RWAs, community bodies, regulatory & executive pillars of society) indifference & insouciance can only invite unexpected deadly virus into our social fabric like never before.

10 WFH dark clouds:

1. Physical wellbeing violations (Intemperate drinking, binge eating, substance abuse, smoking, sedentary life style): There is very scant evidence to suggest that we, especially in India, are truly cognizant of physical intelligence. Just sample what happens with our eating-drinking-physical exercise habits during stressful times. 'During times of high stress, it's common to return to comfort foods. These are foods from our childhood, family, or other emotionally soothing time in our lives. They make us feel good by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain which interact with our mood and sense of well-being. In the short term, this feels pretty good, but these comfort foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates (sugar) and fat-a combination the brain is wired to crave during periods of stress. When this feeling doesn't resolve, it can create a dangerous cycle of cravings.'

When one is in a 'controlled' office premises for 8-10 hours every day, one has system imposed restrictions on smoking, drinking and binge eating. Who regulates it all when one is in WFH set up?Shall it facilitate potently suicidal and unruly eating-drinking behavior? Near riot situation outside liquor vends in different parts of the country especially the state of Delhi in the first week of May 2020paint a scary scenario.

2. Spousal abuse (especially amongst couple on 'threshold'): The Huffington Post raised this 'bedroom menace' in a recent write up quite forcefully and unequivocally. "This pattern of abuse is not limited to America. As governments across the world take steps to limit mobility to reduce the spread of the virus, cases of intimate partner violence have?risen?exponentially, from the United Kingdom and Italy to China, India and beyond.'' This development prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres? in April2020 to urge all member nations to "make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plan to Covid-19"?

Ms. Kavita Mehra, Executive Director, Sakhi, a NGO working for safety & wellbeing of domestic violence survivors in the South Asian community in New York lamented that society has swapped out one public health epidemic for another.Surely Indian counterparts of Sakhi have muchmore daunting challenges to safeguard our millions of Sita and Draupadi across the nation in coming times.

3. Predatory sexual behavior (Neighborhood 'Me-Too', child abuse) The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 ("POSH Act") was enacted as a comprehensive legislation to provide a safe, secure and enabling environment, free from sexual harassment to every woman. Yet, predatory behavior hardly mitigated during last seven years. As many as 70% women employees said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017, of 6,047 respondents, IndiaSpend reported on March 4, 2017.Recent data from BSE 100 companies showed a 14% increase in reports of sexual harassment complaints in FY 2019. Things have not improved despite judicial assertions. With not even a semblance of POSH Act around our home, what happens when predators choose new victims in newer hunting grounds? Is it all imaginary concern?

4. Insensitivity to unique needs of one's own children and parents (Proximity breeds contempt): Janata curfew and lockdown did bring families closer in the initial phase. However, extended work hours, job insecurities and other uncertainties clashes with demands of young children and the elderly parents at home. In earlier set up, young employees chose to spend weekend lot more dutifully with their children and/or ageing parents. Would 24X7 presence at home breed indifference fulfilling well known the adage: familiarity breeds contempt?

5. Social- emotional disconnect with colleagues (alienation + stress) All of us have personally experienced the scourge of physical and emotional distance during the last two months. Loneliness, or social isolation, Elena Blanco Suarez a brain chemistry expert points out, is known to cause changes in the brain, possibly leading to more serious consequences such as depression and other mood disorders.Suarez reported that in extreme cases social isolation led to trouble recognizing faces and messing up sense of direction.WFH has potential to lash out the ill effects of solitary confinement in correctional homes.

6. Laptop-mobile related ailments (eye disease, ergonomic challenges, other physical maladies from excessive machine usages)There is enough evidence to conclude that extensive usages of all wireless devices like cellular phones, laptop, wireless router, wireless earphone, cell telephone tower, bluetooth devices and tablet PC can hasten three diseases namely brain tumor, male infertility and hearing impairment.Though these ailments were there earlier also, longer remote work hours are likely to accentuate them further.

7. Loss of self-initiative: (Overdependence on instructions from the superior officers/ administrative heads). Remote working may snatch opportunities to take initiative, assert oneself, and demonstrate courage of conviction from remote employees caused by physical distancing. However, it must be acknowledged that organizations, with the help of supporting technology and training to workplace leaders, have taken cognizance of this danger. However, any relaxation of levers of engagement may lead to disengagement and collateral damages.

9. Extended & irregular working hours (beyond a healthy 8-10 hours a day): If you asked or observed anyone who has been in lockdown and involved in WFH during March-May 2020, you would have noticed quite few of them engaged in irregular, undisciplined and extended working hours. 'Establishing robust working norms, workflows, and lines of authority is critical, but all too easy to skimp on'. Team McKinsey, based on its studies of china market, cautions us subtly but significantly enough.

Women employees continue to be the worst lot. Only half of women working from home in a survey carried out in the USA reported their employers allowing time flexibility or recalibration of work responsibilities or priorities. Only two in five have had a manager even check in on their well-being. Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook,no wonder, exhorted employers to help by offering time flexibility and lower workloads as appropriately as possible. Not surprisingly, a quarter of women have experienced severe anxiety, and a quarter say "they have more to do than they can possibly handle." Near home, one doubts if situation is any better.

10. Addiction, indulgence with porn sites, immoral activities (Bois Locker Room): According to 2018 Nielsen report, there are an estimated 13 million urban singles in the 28-45 age group with income upwards of Rs 50,000 a month in the country. Industry estimates put the potential market for offline meetup services at about $1 billion. In a free nation it is not an alarming data.However, it can all turn up into a much deeper malaise. With no one even to look over one's shoulders, in a lonely-no human touch world, repressed energy and emotion are quite likely to find a heaven in some unsafe place.

Survey Results

During May 2020 we carried out aflashsurvey to gauge perception of professionals working in the National Capital Region about intensity of these 10 potential dangers on effectiveness of WFH. Results are depicted here in below.

Chart 1: Summary of the Survey Findings

Above chart encapsulates the survey results. We see a higher level of discomfort with extended and irregular working hours being put in across organizations everywhere. The lines that bifurcate work & home are becoming more permeable, leading to an inconsistent time being spent "at work", oscillating between "too much" or "too little" work. Next four danger issues are: a) emotional distress, b) laptop-mobile phone related diseases, c) physical well-being and d) social & emotional disconnect.

Summing Up

WFH is a reality. Our submissions are not meant to read like a red herring prospectus against WFH. We are not against the philosophy of WFH, per se.We flag these issues so that WFH policy makers and administrators look at these realities not as an expert but as an investors who have, borrowing a phrase of Nissim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan Fame), a skin in the game- a stake in the game not as an expert but as someone who have'invested'themselves in their recommendations.We urge policy makers, corporate honchos and social leaders to 'see' and 'invest' themselves to mitigate the flipside. Like Warren Buffet we believe that 'this pandemic has led to longer term shifts in the way people do their jobs.' All the more reasons WFH received our full attention, in entirety, warts and molls together.

References

1. How prepared are companies to 'work from home'? HR Katha 5th May 2020
2.https://tech.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/corporate/wfh-may-find-permanent-home-in-it- contracts/75522991
3.https://www.peoplematters.in/news/culture/google-to-let-employees-wfh-until-year-end-25622
4.https://tech.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/corporate/wfh-may-find-permanent-home-in-it-contracts/75522991https://www.peoplematters.in/article/training-development/for-hr-professionals-it-is-time-to-be-true-leaders-josh-bersin-25538
5.https//youtu.be/RUKyUK50TPY Future of Work, Jobs and Career after COVID 19
6.https://www.indiaspend.com/metooindia-54-rise-in-sexual-harassment-reported-at-workplaces-between-2014-17/
7.https://elplaw.in/leadership/posh-case-studies-from-an-india-perspective/
8.https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/brain-chemistry/201902/the-effects-solitary-confinement-the-brain
9.https://www.hilarispublisher.com/open-access/impact-of-excessive-mobile-phone-usage-on-human-jcsb-1000235.pdf
10.https://tech.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/mobile/offline-only-dating-apps-see-surge-in-users-offer-virtual-activities-amid-the-lockdown/75586848
11.According to 2018 Nielsen report, there are an estimated 13 million urban singles in the 28-45 age group with income upwards of Rs 50,000 a month in the country.Industry estimates put the potential market for offline meetup services at about $1 billion.be-true-leaders-josh-bersin-25538
12. McKinsey Digital, A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China, March 23, 2020.
13.https://www.fastcompany.com/90502854/women-are-laboring-71-hours-a-week-during-the-pandemic-and-employers-are-not-offering=flexibility?utm_campaign= eem524%3A524%3As00%3A20200511_fc&utm_medium=Compass&utm_source=newsletter
14. https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/coronavirus-lockdown-domestic-violence-south-asian-women_in_5eb3f5bfc5b652c56473766b??ncid=newsltinhpmgnews
15. The Wall Street Journal, 8-10 May 2020.
16. https://youtu.be/2_OjqsglRhU