Waris Ahmad Itoo
With work from home almost a mantra now, many corporate workers, including my fiancée, find themselves on a learning curve. There are certain structures, spatial and psychological, that underlie work. It is these structures that instil the discipline in a workforce that is necessary for it to work in alignment with organisational objectives and to meet deadlines. Even in a work from home scenario, the psychological dynamics of work will usually be present, serving as a pointed goad to spur remote working employees to stick to deadlines. However, lack of spatial centralisation can throw things out of order if nothing is done to counterbalance it.
In Hyderabad, where my fiancée works as a corporate trainer, Learning and Development are highly collaborative pursuits. However, it did not take long for her to realize that she had overestimated the complexity. She shares her insights on how teams managed working from home. First, there was a set time when all teams would be logged in: from 10:00 am to 5 pm. It was like creating a parallel work schedule, one that promotes interaction and collaboration as if the office had not shifted at all. She believes that there should be extra communication on the part of team members when a team is just getting into remote
working mode. The team members should volunteer information about what they are doing. The manager or the team leader should clearly lay down the objectives and let every team member know what is expected from them, and then let them do that without needless micromanaging.
The manager should avoid activity-based managing and focus on objective-based managing. She points out that there is any number of digital platforms where members of a team can connect and have a virtual meeting room. Having a virtual meeting every working day is the indispensable way of creating a sense of being in an office environment. She believes there has to be external and striking evidence that everyone treats work from home seriously, and that alone can solidify the foundation on which the arrangement stands.
Members of a team that works from home should dress the part, in clothes that are readily associated with work – which will be noticeable when the team meets on any video. There is a certain sanctity to treating that time at home as real work for which you prepare. Secondly, there should be engagement with one another, so that team members don’t get cocooned in their work and forget that there is a team out there which works with them. It is necessary for someone on a remote working arrangement to communicate its inherent demands to their family and tell that that though they are home, they should be treated as if they were far from home.
My fiancée says this current work from home scenario is hardly business as a usual, and therefore it is necessary to lift up spirits by setting aside some time to connect with colleagues for light banter. She took an initiative called lockdown diaries, where her subordinates are on video and on WhatsApp workgroups talking about the mundane aspects of life, such as having to cook while also working from home.
Here is a thought to mull over, she says: the Covid-19 situation has forced a number of organisations to uncover the practical side of flexibility. It has made many companies realise that work from home is possible. What this needs is some deep thinking, framework, policies, protocols and reporting guidelines to ensure that work is done seamlessly without disruptions.
In 2014, the Harvard Business Review published a study conducted on two groups of call center workers at a company, with one group working from home another commuting to office over a period of nine months. Although the survey found that the former group was more productive and even happier, the researchers were still in favour of employees working only for one or two days a week from home. This is mainly because a perpetual state of work from home poses a host of challenges to both employees and employers.
Covid-19 could bring about a paradigm shift in workplace practices. But almost 55 percent of Indian companies, according to an industry survey, are not comfortable with remote working. They neither have protocols in place nor do they have the infrastructure like strong internet or laptops which they need to give their employees to work remotely. But now there is some confidence that post-Covid, flexibility would become a way of life at many workplaces. The senior leaders who had never attempted to work from home are now forced to do so, and they are actually finding it efficient.
Flexible working hours can bring about a mindset change in terms of how organisations are structured. The entire mindset that an employee needs to come to the office to take major decisions will be challenged. It may be early days but the Covid isolation has certainly made businesses realise that there indeed are more cost-effective ways of doing business. There is a need to understand work-from-home potential of various jobs and sectors to design appropriate policies and practices. For example, the government needs to design support policies for sectors and workers. A one size fits all policy will be less effective in mitigating the risk optimally. Similarly, firms need to check how they compare to other competitors.
The implications for workers are also manifold in terms of productivity, training, and overall well-being. These developments will have a long-lasting impact and will require close monitoring for informed decision making.
One of the hardest parts of working from home is keeping yourself motivated and disciplined without anyone there to supervise you. You’ll need to resist the urge to cut corners just because you can. Keep your eyes on the prize.
—The writer is a PhD scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.