What will the post-pandemic workplace look like? Will employees return to their offices once everyone has been vaccinated? Will working from home continue to be an option? Companies in India are thinking hard about these questions to prepare for the future.
Roshni Wadhwa, director, human resources, L’Oréal India, says, “We will never go back to a time when all employees were physically present at the office. Digital acceleration has made it possible to conduct online meetings, onboarding and training. A large number of people will work remote, unless their job requires them to be on site. Organizations will now have an opportunity to hire borderless talent, gig workers and a liquid workforce with special skills.”
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, on May 5, 2021, sent employees an email about the company’s decision to create a “hybrid workplace” – a model wherein around 60% of the employees would come together in the office a few days every week, another 20% would work in new office locations, and the remaining 20% would work from home.
Google is developing more remote roles “including fully all-remote sub teams.” However, most employees will have to visit the office thrice a week, and work from “wherever they work best” twice a week. Employees will also have “work-from-anywhere weeks”. What does this mean? Pichai said, “Going forward, Googlers will be able to temporarily work from a location other than their main office for up to four weeks per year, with manager approval.”
Will the hybrid work week/hybrid workplace model take root in India?
Sandeep Das, who has worked as a strategy consultant with Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Accenture and Marico, believes that Google has often been the leader “when it comes to working conditions and people practices”. He expects other companies to follow suit.
He finds Google’s model sound and pragmatic because it focuses on flexibility and choice with “reduced transit times, collaboration at work, time to log off, and control over individual lives.” He adds, “This can ensure that women continue to work and not drop off in their mid-careers.” According to him, TCS, Infosys and Spotify have already been exploring similar work models.
Bhavna Dalal, leadership development specialist and executive coach to Bloomberg, Google, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, American Express, Oracle, thinks that long-term productivity will improve when people can choose to work in an environment that suits them best. She says, “Extroverts can go into work more frequently, while introverts can choose to be home. Burnout which has been observed as the by-product of virtual-only work, should reduce significantly.”
Dr Nishant Uppal, associate professor, human resource management, at the Indian Institute of Management Lucknow, has a different perspective. He is not pleased with the hype around Google’s hybrid model. He views it as a clever ploy to increase the number of hours that employees dedicate to Google, effectively disrupting the work-life balance that is essential for well-being and productivity.
He says, “Using the language of choice and flexibility, Google wants to make sure that it hires people who are ready to work anywhere, anytime, without any separation between home and office. Many big recruiters and also start-ups come to our campus offering flexible models of work. Google’s model is not new, it is only old wine in a new bottle.”
How will organizations get a buy-in from their employees?
Arunanand T.A., head of human resources (India), FullContact, Inc., believes that working from home will gradually become an attractive lifestyle option, though it is now associated primarily with safety concerns due to Covid-19.
He says, “Employees have shown tremendous adaptability and embraced virtual modes of work and collaboration. IT companies are moving fast from a task-based environment to an accountability-driven work culture, where people get to determine their own work hours and also articulate their training needs so that companies can support them.”
Aarif Aziz, chief human resource officer, Diageo India, has observed that during the pandemic, even employees who are usually resistant to technology “have worked with an open mind and shown a willingness to pick up new skill sets that are relevant in the new environment.”
What about training and technology?
When the government of India imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020, many organizations were compelled to think of solutions because they could not afford to pause productivity. They did not have a playbook. They had to think on their feet and innovate.
Talent management practitioner Abhijit Bhaduri, former chief learning officer at Wipro, recalls this period in his book Dreamers and Unicorns: How Leadership, Talent and Culture are the New Growth Drivers (2020). He writes, “Until recently, working from home was a privilege reserved only for the trusted few. That norm had to be revisited. Overnight, even junior employees were reluctantly given the privilege to work from remote locations.”
Several managers in India were clueless about how to manage their projects because they were in the habit of monitoring people on site; sometimes even micro-managing them. L’Oréal India's Wadhwa is of the opinion that managers must be trained to set clear expectations, have well-defined deliverables, and also to cultivate an empathetic outlook towards team members.
Das, who has written the book Hacks for Life and Career: A Millennial’s Guide to Making it Big (2020), says, “The technology needs to be more immersive to blur boundaries; for instance, with life-size screens for meetings between physical and virtual locations. It is a matter of time before 3D replications of individuals, for instance, Microsoft Mesh, located virtually will seem to be present in the same room.”
According to Pichai, Google is now developing “advanced video technology that creates greater equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually.”
What is the future of workplace relations and office politics?
Bhaduri and Wadhwa emphasize that people are likely to miss the warm face-to-face personal interactions that they had with their colleagues in the physical space. It will be a challenge to replicate these virtually, therefore organizations will have to work harder to build connections.
Dalal, who is the author of Checkmate Office Politics: Build A Positive Power Equation at Work (2020), anticipates the likelihood of “cliques being formed amongst those that come into the office and then hang out after work.” As a result, employees who work remotely may feel left out. She says, “My sense is that leaders must energetically bring people together periodically and align them to the common goal to keep the connection intact.”
According to her, office politics stems from a situation where people’s inherent needs are not being met. For instance, those who are not direct and assertive try to manipulate others by being passive-aggressive. She says, “It will be interesting to see what human needs go unfulfilled in the hybrid method of working. I do think this model will force people to show up more as who they are, which means that misfits may be identified sooner than later.”