Not just productivity, companies must also focus on creating the psychological watercooler moments as work from anywhere becomes the new normal for many employees.
A spate of recent announcements by companies in India shows that some employers are now sensitive to the unique challenges of work and life during the Covid pandemic, and may be willing to make unprecedented arrangements to retain talent.
Oyo is one of the more recent examples among this set: on May 12, the hospitality company announced a four-day work week along with unlimited paid leaves for employees till July - no explanations needed. (A far cry from last year, when the company asked some India employees to go on a four-month break with limited benefits and announced a 25% cut in fixed pay across the board.)
Earlier this month, Google chief Sundar Pichai told employees in an email that they could work from anywhere till September 2021, and that the search giant would invest in technologies and workplace design (like outdoor meeting rooms) to mitigate the risk of Covid to employees.
As the realisation sinks in that work from home (WFH) - or work from anywhere - and similar precautions may need to continue for a prolonged period, more companies - and human resource (HR) managers - are thinking of ways to build Covid safety measures into company policy.
We spoke to HR managers and experts to understand the trends they are seeing and their top tips, to set the tone for this phase of work.
Thammaiah B.N., managing director of HR consultancy firm PERSOLKELLY, says it’s not as if Indian companies haven’t been flexible so far. What’s new, he explains, is that many of us were looking at WFH as a contingency plan till last year - that view is no longer supportable.
“At least the top 30% of companies where there is work from home see that this could continue; companies have tweaked their processes... automation is coming in business processes, internal processes and delivery processes. Even in manufacturing, they are asking how IoT (internet of things) can help,” Thammaiah says.
According to Thammaiah, some of these changes will stick; like higher spending and care around office hygiene and meeting room design. Others, though, will prove unsustainable in the long run. Example: “Expecting to have a very spacious office so everyone can maintain distance - this is not going to be sustainable,” he says.
“Employee insurance could be expanded to cover the family; this is because companies are seeing that when someone in the family is sick, then the emotional and financial wellness of the employee is affected too,” Thammaiah adds.
We are already beginning to see this. Case in point: Welspun India - a publicly traded company with annual revenues exceeding Rs 5,000 crore - announced on May 12 that it will extend medical insurance of Rs 5 lakh to employees’ family members over a 10-year period.
‘Onsite to online’
In April 2020, The Economist magazine printed an article on the “Death of The Office”. The writer made the case that offices are an institutionalised waste of time. And that maybe all employees can get more done from home or elsewhere.
Yet, productivity isn’t everything.
Last month (almost a year to the date from The Economist story), Moneycontrol contributor Sundeep Khanna wrote about the cost of WFH in terms of creativity and innovation, and the things we’re missing out on when we’re not “co-located” - like the transfer of knowledge from seniors to junior employees.
HR managers say this could be addressed in time, if some of the processes and technologies around work evolve, too.
“A hybrid workforce where employees can split their time between working remotely and at a work location is absolutely possible in India. However, to do that, organizations will need new technologies to enable stronger collaboration across teams, training to strengthen and level-up how we work and even new leadership practices to help managers support their teams and drive efficiency in a hybrid model,” says Lavanya Rajan, senior HR manager, Verizon Media.
Raghu Chandrashekar, head, human resources, Siemens Healthineers India, says: “With meticulous planning, it is possible to run a hybrid workplace where people come to office in limited numbers according to predefined schedule, or when business demands. If this is the future that we are looking at, we need to prepare well beyond merely enabling home-office infrastructure support.”
Siemens Healthineers India is trying to move as many functions and people to online versus onsite roles, Chandrashekar says. This despite the fact that it is a medical infrastructure and services provider to hospitals and laboratories, and “physical presence in certain situations at customer sites is unavoidable”.
According to Chandrashekar, process refinement, upskilling of talent, and better ways to connect with employees will be crucial. “We would have to use technology in enabling a much stronger and a more pervasive connect so that our employees feel closer.”
PERSOLKELLY’s Thammaiah, too, emphasises the need for this bond among employees. He says it will require meticulous planning from HR function heads, enabled by IT, to create those “psychological water cooler moments” and “nice cup of coffee moments”.
As with any churn, now is an opportunity for companies to stand out for implementing progressive HR policies. Case in point: earlier this month, Borosil took the lead in announcing a set of compensations and benefits for the families of employees who - unfortunately - lose their lives to Covid. This earned the company the biggest compliment there is in the 21st century: Doing a Borosil became a verb.
Thammaiah of PERSOLKELLY says there are many ways in which we will see this shift panning out. For example, more companies will act on the realisation that WFH has increased the workload on some female staffers. “Women in the workforce continue to handle office and house work... Companies may begin to look at specific plans for women - to understand that she needs to be with the family in the middle of the day. Most progressive companies will take the view that what makes the employee able to do what she does is also important.”
So, though challenging, the current work environment is also replete with possibilities. Another case in point is promoting diversity in the office.
Thammaiah says that companies have really seen the value people from different backgrounds and skill sets bring. This includes things that may have gone unnoticed in a physical workspace - for example, someone who is good with taking initiative and communicating online.
Additionally, the current work environment presents an opportunity to overhaul work processes. To clearly establish lines of communication, encourage collaboration and streamline delivery.
Depending on the employee-centricity and nature of business and clientele, Thammaiah says we could also see a change in what progressive companies spend money on. For example, an employee-centric delivery business or healthcare provider could hire more people so staff can take days off. "They could create flexibility where there is none," Thammaiah says.
Similarly, Thammaiah says, technology and automation will be the enablers of new work-from-anywhere policies. “Which comes back to the CEOs table, to the investments that can be made to build in flexibility at work. That would obviously require spends; but companies can then say, ‘we are employee-friendly and therefore we are spending so much on mitigating the risk to employees',” he says.
Also read: How some firms are turning COVID-19 restrictions into a lucrative opportunity
There are pitfalls, too.
“Unique challenge (to managers) would be that if not planned well, then management will become more stressful,” says Thammaiah. He adds that managers, with the help of HR, need to figure out how to keep people motivated, and take care of the emotional side of work.
For HR managers and line bosses, work-from-anywhere will entail both workflow management and simulating workplace interactions to promote camaraderie, team work, sense of purpose and growth - all things that contribute towards job satisfaction and well-being.“Going forward,” Rajan says, “companies will need to bring together the best aspects of remote and on-site work to shape a more engaging and inclusive employee experience." One way to do this, she says, is to "launch pilot programmes with select teams that will test new tools and resources related to these working models. With feedback at hand, they can be ready to scale up and include the larger teams in a future phased approach”.