IMA Analysis

Saturday May 2, 2020

Work Customs- April 2020

Speaker:  Adit Jain,Editorial Director, IMA India

Homework is easy

Work from home is something that seems likely to outlast the lockdown of Covid 19. The challenge has previously been access to reasonable internet bandwidth and security protocols, enforced by a company’s sceptical IT function, as well as those of its customers. But compelling circumstances give rise to innovative solutions and many seem to have cracked it. Traditional ways of engagement amongst office co-workers, channel partners, vendors and customers required physical interaction, simply because that was the custom and human nature adapted to this compulsion. Now, almost everyone is comfortable with virtual meetings and in many cases actually prefers it, as it saves time and resource. The trick to the longer term sustenance of WFH is the ability to transparently measure employee output. As customs change, human nature will adapt to a new reality.

The advantages are obvious. The stress of commuting detrimentally impacts productivity. The average commute in metropolitan cities varies between an hour and a half and four hours a day. This creates stress reflecting in medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, but also rising levels of mental ailments, such as depression amongst urban workers. WFH encourages more women in the workforce, a compelling issue in India which has grossly undermined national productivity. Many women with the appropriate educational backgrounds would like to work but domestic compulsions, such as care for children or the elderly, prevent this. And the availability of a larger universe of workers will drive salary costs down.

Consequently, companies will cut down on floor space and move from allocated seats to a free-seating concept. Establishment expenses are not an insignificant proportion of fixed costs and a 30% reduction would constitute a welcome saving. Many organisations have successfully experimented with open offices and free seating. Larger spaces are provided for meeting rooms, relaxed engagement lounges and larger well-lit cafeterias. All of these offer venues for informal engagement or formal discussions. Smaller, new age, firms that have minimal office space, use Starbucks for business discussions. The trick really is to move as much cost as possible from fixed to variable.

A challenge for a larger scale WHF protocol however, remains the need for personal engagement and some firms are experimenting with new models in this area. They have for instance, set up a ‘virtual lounge’ which allows colleagues to have a chat over coffee. Once a day, they engage with team-members on a ‘fun connect’ platform  or a ‘chai pe charcha’.  Learning programmes for new skills are being designed in a way that they can be offered on-line, where groups of individuals can learn and work together. A command and control style is being replaced by a softer approach that involves a greater delegation of authority and responsibility. Clearly, the jury is still out as to whether employee motivation can be sustained in a scenario premised on permanent WFH. Perhaps, future delivery models would involve some sort of balance.

All of this is no longer within the purview of possibility. It is already happening.  Based on our interaction over the past two weeks with Forum members across various functions, including Human Resource, companies report that they are working on productivity levels of 80% or higher. They believe that in the coming months this can be ramped up towards what may constitute newer benchmarks. A crisis forces us to look at new solutions and an opportunity to break away from the past. Some are ahead of the curve. Those that adapt are the ones who follow the motto of “can’t waste a good crisis”. They say that something good follows something bad. Perhaps, the custom of work is one such issue.