The warning bell was rung by the Prime Minister when he announced Janta Curfew on March 22nd this year. I had returned to Mumbai on March 13th after a series of Board Meetings in Chennai. We were discussing annual operating plans but knew that we may be hit by a tidal wave soon. We did not expect it to be a Tsunami.
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When I spoke with HR heads of companies in mid-May, many said that they knew a lockdown was coming. Many global companies had issued a diktat as early as March 15th to move employees out of offices. The challenge being faced in India was that many employees were not IT/data-enabled. Many did not have an office-issued laptop and some of them had patchy Internet connections at home. Companies faced a Herculean task to move thousands of people from WFO [work from office] to WFH [work from home].
WFH at first started as an experiment but soon Indian companies discovered that it was working well, given the fact work load was rather tame and demand/supply of goods was muted, it was a workable option under the circumstances. Savita Mathai, Group Chief Talent officer of FCB India and IPG Media Brands said, “We knew IT services could be delivered remotely, but did not realise that even advertising and media services could be delivered from home. That was a big learning.”
While companies knew that there were many digital tools that could be used for remote working, they had never really brought it into the mainstream of the work process. I remember when the Internet first came to India, our ad agency decided to take a connection; in each of our offices, there used to be one lone computer with an Internet connection. The use of computers was limited to the data processing group and the finance/accounts teams.
All that changed when email became ubiquitous. Suddenly all executives got computers on their tables and were taught how to send and reply to emails. Numerous secretaries were suddenly made redundant, the smarter ones learnt new skills.
And I see the emergence of digital remote working tools during the COVID crisis as the ‘email moment’ for corporate India, which has generated some important learnings.
- The first big learning for corporates across India has been the unleashing of the power of digital tools like Zoom, Microsoft Meetings, Zoho and more to conduct meetings.
- Work From Home (WFH) under a lockdown is a lot different from WFH in normal times. During the lockdown WFH was indeed a complex affair. Children were not going to school. Domestic help was missing. And the pressure often fell on the woman of the house, and if she also had a high pressure job, it only added to the pressure. It was here that companies seem to have cut a lot of slack to the exigencies of home vs work related issues. Colleagues have picked up the threads and completed the job.
- The second big learning has been that you can trust your employees to work from home. If they were, say, 50% effective under the lockdown conditions, they will definitely be a lot more effective when there is no lockdown tension. I heard this being said by both by big companies and smaller boutique units. Some companies have even announced that they will WFH till December 2020.
- Companies have realized that if the tools work and if employees can be trusted, WFH can be a big boon. You can streamline your operations and create processes that can better enable WFH.
There is however one big challenge. One company that surveyed its employees found that more than 50% preferred to work from office. I can empathize with that sentiment.
The other challenge that companies are worried about is the fact that not all their staff can work from home. Simply put, some of them may live in very small apartments, with parents, grandparents and relatives, leaving little space for a convenient work station.
The good thing is that Indian companies are aware of the challenges that WFH can pose to a youngster from a lower middle-class family. And most will handle the issue with a lot of compassion.
The undeniable truth is, post COVID, WFH is going to become the norm. Travel for most tasks is going to be a thing of the past. Digital tools are going to become more and more ubiquitous.
Where does all this leave the aspiring young executive? How does he or she prepare for this new world? How does he/she get to love the work place, wherever it might be?
Making WFH enjoyable and productive
Employees need to be ready to embrace the WFH philosophy and not balk at it when told that the company will want its employees to WFH at least a few days a week. Incidentally, several global companies such as Colgate have had this policy in operation in India for a year or more.
So, when told you have to work from home, you first need to figure out where in your home will you create a niche for you to work. And also a niche where you can go to, if you have to attend a meeting.
The other bigger challenge is the need to figure out how to organize the day. WFH can be very distracting unless you have a strict discipline. A set routine that you follow every day. Albeit with enough flexibility.
The other important requirement for employees is the need to get better organized, digitally. Imagine if you work in an office where you don’t have a permanent desk, which could well be the future norm. You only have a ‘Hot Desk’ that you occupy the two or three days you go into office and you are given a personal locker where you can store your stuff. Getting better organized, digitally and physically will be a key skill to develop.
I remember young executives who used to walk into my office for a 30-minute discussion on brand strategy, armed with five box files of papers. Now, imagine doing this remotely with just your laptop computer to help you. How well are your files organized, how well are they indexed?
Corporates will spend time and effort training their employees for the new world of jobs. But WFH is not just taking a computer home and working from home. Effective and efficient WFH calls for some major changes in aptitude and attitude.