The Covid experience has compelled organisations to learn rapidly to operate in distributed and remote structures. Many believe that the lessons from this experience will feed into the post-Covid world, making work-from-home the norm (for at least parts of the organisation). Some of the anticipated benefits include significant cost reduction and increased employee wellness. But before rushing to embrace this model as a panacea for many productivity concerns, consider these factors that will impact its utility for the organisation.
Addressing the technology divide
Appropriate set up of technology (computers/laptops, internet connectivity, access to secured systems) can go a long way to determining the quality of experience for the employee and the productivity for the organisation. The last census conducted in 2011 found that approximately 20% of urban households and 5% of rural households owned a computer or laptop. More recent data (October 2019) from TRAI tells us that roughly half the population of India is on the internet. But most of this is mobile wireless connections and WiFi remains in single digits as a percentage of the total. And while affluent homes may have more than one connection and faster speeds, lower SEC homes are often on narrowband connections or not connected at all.
These gaps will need to be addressed by organisations to make work-from-home possible. Among our clients, companies that are tech-oriented businesses, with younger tech-savvy employees, and where a company laptop is part of the employment contract, have been able to migrate early to a work-from-home model and reap considerable benefits.
Availability of Adequate Work space
A quiet, separated space to work is key to ensuring that the model is ‘work-from-home’ rather than ‘work-for-home’. This is easier to institute for higher-income (and so likely more senior) people. Younger employees typically live in smaller homes, have younger kids and boundaries of space and mindshare are harder to draw when present at home. A half-way solution that some companies have adopted is to have many smaller satellite offices and some smaller organisations could even use shared spaces. There have been some upsides to this model in terms of hiring talent especially in large cities where the commute to a central hub can get daunting. This way there is a little more control on the quality of the work environment, infrastructure and data security as well.
Acknowledging need for Childcare support
There is optimism that work-from-home could do away with the mommy tax women pay (a disadvantage accrued by staying home to take care of their families). But what Covid has dismally unearthed is the gender inequity in how housework and childcare responsibilities are assumed in families. In our work-from-home study this emerged even for women professionals in fairly senior corporate jobs. Then, where women are located – home/ office – is only geography. Granted, that once the lockdown lifts and domestic/ childcare help is available, things may improve marginally. But quality help can typically be afforded by more senior and thus better -off people.
Innovative measures are needed to mitigate this issue. Progressive policies – maternity and paternity leave, perhaps some kind of allowance to enable younger employees to hire good help at home. Organisations need to examine how they will design for child-care support for all of their employees, even those that remain at home. Women in India are roughly 28% of the workforce, making this a significant issue that needs to be solved for.
Culture, ethos and leadership
Much of what we learn is through observation. Culture is imbibed not through slogans but through watching leaders operate and behave. Values are communicated through conversations and stories and shared decisions. Fast growing young companies already struggle with the percolation of culture as degrees of separation between the founding team and new team members grow.
A culture diagnostic on a young SAP company that we worked with, showed high employee happiness at first sight. Their employees were a high talent pool and greatly valued the policies in place that celebrated the individual – flexi-time, work-from-home, creative spaces to work in the office, etc. The senior team believed that their work ethic was an important contributor to their success, their USP. But as asynchronous working became the norm, people started understanding culture very differently. Despite efforts from the senior team to articulate their values and encourage people to live by them, the values got interpreted contextually by employees – and this eventually had a negative impact on their customer responsiveness.
Leaders will need to think creatively about evangelizing a culture that will support performance and shared values when a significant portion of the workforce works remotely. Indeed, the skills required of leadership itself may be quite different, or at least more intense. Aspects of physical presence will start to matter less, with virtual presence taking precedence. Planning and communication will likely occupy a larger portion of any virtual leader’s mind-space.
Communication, team capability and alignment
In the current scenario, we are largely operating within teams that know each other well and have a history of working in shared spaces together. So collaboration and team synergy can be leveraged to continue to be productive. In our study, leaders shared that having an empowered team that was used to working well together went a long way towards enabling productivity in a work-from-home situation.
Google ran several in-depth studies on team effectiveness and found that psychological safety was the most important factor that helped a team work well together. Building this psychological safety especially when people have not shared space together requires an enormous focus on communication, specifically on creating understanding and trust.
While many job descriptions lend themselves to being possible even in work from home models, organisations need to do deeper planning and provision to ensure all of their employees feel safe, accountable and equipped to be productive and happy at work, irrespective of location. If this can be done, wfh can be a real option as we redesign the future of work.