WFH 5.0 – Institutionalising The New Normal

Guest Column: As WFH becomes a more ‘permanent’ way of working, Tarun Rai, Chairman & Group CEO, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia lists the measures industry leaders should consider for the near future

e4m by Tarun Rai
Updated: Jul 23, 2020 8:23 AM
tarun rai

While the Lockdown has had various versions – now we are in Lockdown 5 (and Unlockdown2.0. It’s all very confusing) – the WFH model has remained pretty much the same. There is no difference between the first couple of weeks and now. Only that the realisation has dawned that we are going to be in this mode for a much longer time than we had initially believed. The temporary adjustment has become a more ‘permanent’ way of working. And there’s talk about what ‘work’ should look like once the crisis is over. According to a report 59% people want the option of remote working in the post-Covid world. Even surveys that we have done in our company throw up a similar percentage. 

According to another report Netherlands has adapted to working from home the best. The simple reason being that even before the pandemic almost 15% of their workers were operating remotely. 

So, after more than 100 days of working from home are we finally admitting that this could be the new normal? 

Now, I have been a big proponent of focussing on people’s output rather than their input. I don’t care whether our staff report to office on time, or at all, as long as the work gets done. I believe people are responsible enough to manage their own time. And this is something I have always encouraged. 

However, what we have witnessed for the last few months is different than allowing for flexible working hours or letting some people work from home. First, this time the entire organisation had to work remotely. Rather than having an option to work from home everyone had to work from home. And second, this was working from home while under Lockdown. This meant that there was other, non-office related work, that needed to be done at home. Depending on the situation, it could mean no domestic help, kids at home 24 hours, old parents to look after etc. Third, we got very little notice for getting ourselves organised. And finally, the anxiety around the pandemic which has caused a lot of stress. 

Despite all of the above, we have managed rather well. So much so that people have come to believe that this can be a workable model even after the crisis is over. 

I agree that it is possible. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are no benefits to having a physical office – there are many. However, I would certainly look at a scenario where, on any given day, we don’t have more that 50% of our staff working in office. 

But to institutionalise this we need to take certain measures. And as with most things in any organisation, it starts from the top – the leadership. 

Trust: The most important lesson that we should have learnt from our experience of the last 100 days is that we just have to trust our people more. One of the things that has impressed me (and not surprised me at all), is that I have not heard one instance of anyone from my leadership team reporting a lack of total commitment from our employees. In fact, I keep hearing how people are actually more productive, more responsible and more committed. This, when it’s easy not to be. There is, after all, no real supervision, no one checking if you are at your workstation. I am sure many of our leaders are micro-managers. If we want to make WFH the new normal they will have to let go. They will have to learn to trust their people to manage their own time. Stop peering over their team members’ shoulders to check if the work is being done. So, we are talking about a new leadership style that is less authoritative and more empowering. 

Appraisals, Evaluation and Culture: Similarly, our HR policies need to change. The focus of the appraisals have to be more focussed on the output of the employees and not whether they are ‘seen’ to be working. According to a report people feel there is pressure on them to report to work. To be seen in office irrespective of whether they are actually working. There is even a term for it –presenteeism. Employees report that they feel that their commitment is doubted if they are not seen in office. Our HR people have to change this. And, of course, we have to work on building a new culture and rules of engagement for people working from home. This includes respecting peoples’ time – having ‘office hours’ even if people are not in office. Be conscious that striking a work-life balance can become even more difficult when people are working from home. 

Home Infrastructure: And finally, obvious but most important, the need to provide staff with appropriate infrastructure. Starting with basic high-speed broadband connection to hardware that is required to operate from home. In fact, we are making an assumption that everyone can work from home easily. In cities like Mumbai with small apartments, it may be difficult for many people to find the appropriate corner in their homes to work from, especially if they live in an extended family. For them, it may not be working from home but still working remotely as they may have the option to go to a café to work from rather than from their homes. Once again, the need for tech support – laptops, WiFi dongles… 

In conclusion, as a knowledge-based industry, we are lucky that we have the genuine option of making WFH or remote working a more permanent solution without losing out on productivity and efficiency. In the bargain, reducing stress for our employees. And, if more companies follow suit, reducing the stress on the creaking infrastructure of our cities and reducing pollution. The lovely clear blue skies that have been shared on social media in the last three months can continue post the current crisis.

Tarun Rai, is the Chairman & Group CEO, Wunderman Thompson

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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