COVID19 locked down large parts of the world; people experimented with alternate methods to keep the sources of their livelihood alive. Some people could continue working remotely and many couldn’t. In the process, all organisations learnt many lessons. Some of the old beliefs turned out to be myths and got busted; new ideas have germinated. And of course, many of the old values and beliefs about the workplace continue to hold good. However, the point is that the workplace is different for everyone irrespective of one’s profession. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, salespersons, drivers, electricians, plumbers, masons to house-helps are now working in a new world of work which has more automation, a greater focus on outcomes and an intense drive to do more with less. How do these changes mesh with the organisation’s values and beliefs?
Interesting challenges for the managers
Remote work has been possible for a small proportion of the 3 billion workers in the world, though a lot of discussions is centred around this topic. It is not a pointless exercise because most of the highly productive jobs in the world are being done remotely now. How do leaders manage this kind of a workspace?
Remote work has certainly been found to be a possible solution and no longer bears the brunt of being branded as ineffective. However, there is an important caveat here. In the last few months of this experiment, organisations, as well as employees, have been accommodative of having moved work to employees’ homes. This cannot be an ongoing practice for long unless the employment terms are changed that way. Even if they do, it is not easy to induct new joinees and mainstream them. Employees are human beings and they need to build social ties at the workplace. It is not easy to build them over video conferences and phone calls.
Moreover, teams need an identity and a common purpose which are best achieved when there is a certain level of relatedness and bonding among the members of the team. It is not easy to achieve the level of bonding among members without being together physically.
Sensitive conversations, critical decisions and brainstorming are best done in person face to face. Over the last six months, people have realised that video conferencing tools have their limitations. Teams have had coffee together, lunch on a zoom meeting; some teams held yoga sessions remotely. However, the value of being together around a coffee table or taking a walk together has greater effectiveness than the technology tools. For critical tasks, people can easily appreciate and leverage on non-verbal cues of the people around them.
However, Remote work is not going to vanish. Companies save real estate costs and can access a wider pool of talent as they offer flexibility to workers for remote work. Similarly, employees save commute time and efforts; feel happy for having conserved fuel and reduced vehicular pollution. Most likely, we will see a hybrid workplace where companies will offer flexibility to their employees to come to the physical workplace for specific workouts. We will also see the composition of the workplace change in favour of a larger number of Flexi-workers. How do the managers lead such a workforce towards a common purpose and drive their actions in alignment with company values?
Culture is experienced by observation
We watch our seniors deal with various situations at the workplace each day and draw our conclusions around what works and what does not. We figure out the set of behaviours which our managers at different levels appreciate and tend to fall in line. So, it is a method of observation. When we are working remotely, the occasions to discuss topics informally are limited. Hence, concluding about the do’s and don’ts is very difficult, especially if someone is new to the team. Though companies run various exercises to communicate with their employees about their values and beliefs from time to time, the impact of such sessions is very limited. Mostly it is observed on the floor and learnt.
For example, an organisation could say that they are customer-focused and run their employees through an impressive training program explaining this value. The real test is to see if the employees and their managers are proactively understanding the customer requirements, providing services which match customer expectations and solving customer issues promptly. When people are working remotely and more so in a geographically dispersed organisation, it is not very practical that the employees can observe how the managers and peers are dealing with customer issues unless a deliberate attempt is made by the organisation and the managers to bring out these issues, discuss and showcase the model behaviours.
For the Millions who are back to work
Most people in the world use tools, equipment, machines and a certain work environment to perform their job. Sometimes a doctor might be able to provide telemedicine but it is not the new normal yet. Teachers can teach using video lessons, but this form of teaching is not complete unless there is fieldwork, experiments in a laboratory or workshop, working in small groups to appreciate a concept. There are hundreds of jobs like that of a farmer, a factory worker, a chef, a beautician and a truck driver which cannot be performed remotely. They are back to work if they have been able to find one.
In the new workplace of theirs, there are new norms and expectations to be fulfilled. Their jobs are now measured differently and performance rewards are accordingly changing. As the business environment has become more volatile and uncertain than before, the nature of work has turned more transient and enmeshed with technology tools.
Workers have to stay updated with the emerging skills and knowledge; be willing to pick up short-term assignments and at the same time, strive for excellence. Great workplaces will need to provide objective performance management systems, facilitate timely feedback and invest in imparting new skills and knowledge to their workers regularly. Managers have to adapt to these quickly and demonstrate their commitment to their organisations’ core beliefs.