What's the future of work from home?
Both in the US and India, the hybrid work model has been made functional in a long-term perspective, but for the senior levels of the organisation, being at the corporate headquarters is becoming a necessity
There is a lot of deliberation among human resource developers, chief executive officers and corporate consultants on the long-term viability of the switch to 'work from home' mode compelled by the Covid fallout across the spectrum of businesses.
The initial convergence between employers and employees on that was traceable to the fear of loss of business for the company and the fear of lay-off in the workforce. Subsequently, the changed methodology drew the attention of the business establishments to the promise of cost-effectiveness that seemed to be on the horizon, with the employee also seeing in the new practice a certain freedom from the daily hassles of 'preparing', 'travelling' and 'going' to office. Add to that the flexibility of working hours reducing the boredom of the fixed routine.
This, however, has proved to be a transient advantage for both sides as the evaluation of productivity that determined profitability ran into question marks. The corporate body could take the one-time spend of fixing a work station at the house of the employee in the stride - it was in any case nothing more than making a laptop and a mobile phone available to the employee - but the triple challenge of keeping up monitoring and supervision, ensuring team spirit through remote communications, and maintaining the required level of efficiency of work, seemed to be turning formidable for the leadership.
A theoretical construct that work at home away from the din of the corporate headquarters allowed for better concentration and hence a better output per unit of time has proved to be just a deduction, as a sense of casualness and complacence developing among many workers negated this logic.
Lower Half Favours WFH
It is seen that work from home is becoming a favoured option for those in the lower half of the organisational pyramid, to which a bulk of the 'compliers' belong in any establishment - they are happy with the compensation they get in an easy work situation where a senior is also not on their head physically. This trend has been reported from the advanced countries of the West.
In a business organisation, the policy makers and strategy planners constitute a relatively small apex and the rest of the upper half of the above-mentioned pyramid is excessively loaded with senior echelons, who do not necessarily have a direct role in fixing policies, but earn their place by claiming to be the supervisors and mentors of the bulk reporting to them.
An after-effect of Covid is that a lot of pressure has developed for making the organisation 'flat' and reducing the vertical hierarchy to allow for delegation of decision-making to the executives below, who are now working in a highly dispersed format.
The seniors in the mid-segment, as a result, would now be exposed to the greater challenge of accountability as they would have to act as the hands on 'team leaders' themselves and would hence be required to know their men much more closely than before.
They must show adequate emotional intelligence to deal with their people in an environ of distress all around, created by the Covid emergency. In a way, however, this must on the whole lead to improved efficiency, which is something that could be regarded as a 'gift' of the disastrous pandemic.
Evolution of Management
Covid certainly has led to an 'evolution' of management - its strands can be identified - and since evolution is always a positive phenomenon, it is not a surprise that a win-win 'hybrid' model of working is fast setting in and getting accepted by all businesses and other organisations.
The shift to 'work from home ' came more easily to IT- based companies, but it complemented the rise of digitisation and online communication and consultations generally, which had the effect of upgrading the systems of supply chain, production and delivery.
Products and services, however, both faced greater pressure of quality control as the customers - impatient with physical restrictions imposed by the pandemic - demanded total satisfaction on the first brush with that supplier and tended to write off that source if the quality was flawed.
That online retail businesses have generally grown speaks of the healthy competition for quality that they willingly faced in their endeavour to retain the edge.
A second advance - apart from the issue of quality - is the reaffirmation of the principle of modern business that said that the 'individual was at the centre of all productivity'. Human resource managers have to realise the new-found importance of up-skilling and reskilling to get the best results out of the existing workforce.
Induction of technology-aided production, distribution and promotion but the strategy formulation that became a test of both knowledge and intellect, remained exclusively a call for the leadership for it demanded swift human responses to any contingency, including a decision on possible course correction necessitated by the greater pace of change in all facets of business.
The third transformational difference attributable to Covid after-effect is the rise of entrepreneurship and startups, because of the opportunities the change of business environ offered to those who had ideas and insight into what would work in the new demand-supply equation. This is the path of growth opened by the Covid crisis. Young people creating their own enterprise is becoming a trend setter and since it is rooted in new knowledge and initiative, it will hold for the future.
Three attendant issues in the workplace shift relate to maintenance of record, security of information and establishing a uniform yardstick of performance evaluation. Decisions taken in virtual meetings have to be centrally recorded and made available to employees in remote locations online for them to take the work forward.
Where the 'production' is also dispersed, the 'segments' of the 'factory' would be identified more and more with individual workers or artisans and special methods of coordination among them will have to be evolved by the leadership.
'Supervision', in the process, would become an arduous task and not a cushy function any more. In organisations which had the need to keep their operational information confidential, the employees working online have to be specially trained in security and reminded of the importance of putting the hard discs and pen drives under lock and key and following the login controls and password protection drills without fail.
At the corporate headquarters, the security cell may have to be strengthened. Performance evaluation of the seniors must rest on their having a closer personal knowledge about the hands working for them. This is vital since needs of the employees compelled by health contingency in the family, including a sudden request for change in the set timing, may have to be accommodated.
The availability of seniors online at odd hours is as important as the summoning of the employee for a task outside of the fixed hours. Covid has reinforced the Indian theory of 'paternal nurtural management' which unlike the Western capitalist thought, calls for an empathetic boss-subordinate relationship even beyond the workplace.
In fact, it is the performance evaluation of 'seniors' by the corporate apex that has to become stringent - in the light of these new yardsticks of judgement applying to them.
Both in the US and India, the hybrid model that combines physically attending office and working from home has been made functional in a long-term perspective, but for the senior levels of the organisation, being at the corporate headquarters is becoming a necessity - again in the interest of successful policy and strategy formulation.
In-person deliberations have no substitute as far as macro planning is concerned - board meetings do not serve their purpose in a virtual format. The evolving practice would favour return of the leaders to the head office with a certain number of supporting personnel being also present there in person.
This has to go with a planned mix of other employees in 'shifts' working from office or home in the best interest of productivity. In view of the additional mutants of the Corona virus appearing in some parts of the world, there is no getting away from a very strict compliance with Covid appropriate behaviours, including masking, social distancing and hand sanitisation, in the foreseeable future. This adds to the viability of work from home as a long-term corporate strategy.
A significant outcome of the Covid crisis is the adoption of some of these hybrid practices also by the government and the delineation they have caused - to the betterment of performance all round - between the decision takers or policy makers and the workforce that primarily implements those directions.
Ministries of Health, Infrastructure Development and Home got, in the process, their senior bureaucrats to handle governance at the micro levels too, to ensure execution of policies, which is a welcome development - even as the middle and lower segments of employees continue working under the appropriate hybrid mode.
In the Narendra Modi regime, this flowed from the top and that is why amid the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, healthcare management, vaccination and economic revival could be met with promptness and efficacy.
Covid called for disaster management with the Centre being the national authority for handling it, and a valuable outcome of that has been a steady move forward towards cooperative federalism in spite of the historical legacy of political conflict developing between the Centre and the states on almost all policy issues. This is a precious gain that has to be preserved for the future.
(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)