We are living in an extra-ordinary situation straight out of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! A virus has literally put us under house-arrest, entire cities have been put on lockdown and people have no choice but to isolate themselves.
The word unprecedented could not have been more apt. With every passing day of the lockdown, the need for people to stay connected has grown. And technology is perhaps the only link enabling any kind of collaboration or access. For individuals, especially those living away from their families, it’s helping ensure sanity. And for businesses, it’s helping ensure continuity. Most importantly, it’s keeping the economy moving by making it possible for the vast majority of employees to work from home without compromising on safety.
The concept of working from home isn’t alien to us. In the pre-lockdown era, it was a facility available in a discretionary way to a select few. But today, organisations have moved almost their entire workforce to a remote working model. They are now discovering and working through the challenges of extending the access, the collaboration and security to remote employees, at a scale like never before. For us, this has meant coming across three distinct realities of tomorrow.
Not every hero wears a cape
A lot has been written about remote working being actively supported by businesses today. And this workforce needs to be commended for adapting to this new way of working extended hours and balancing work from home with work at home.
Yet, the entire world is not being run from home. Every day, a large number of people venture out of their homes, risking life and limb, to ensure essential services such as medicine and healthcare, banking, law and order, food supplies, transport and logistics continue to be available.
This workforce has risen to challenges of in-person service rendering, close contact, going beyond constraints that pose a risk to their own health and safety, to ensure that not just businesses, but people’s lives go on. It is on the back of their courage and commitment that we’re still able to make all our digital money transactions seamlessly or facilitate the movement of essential commodities or keep the vital health services running. These are the new heroes, hitherto unsung, the vast majority of India’s “frontline workers” that have come to the fore to keep people’s lives going while the remote workers operate diligently in the shadows to keep businesses running.
This experience has brought to forefront a key shift required as we look at workforce planning. When this lockdown is behind us, and life finds some semblance of order, businesses will need to recognise that a workforce is not a single whole, but instead, a few distinct parts that work in conjunction. The heroes from behind the wings are distinct from the ones that are onstage and engaging with clients—and the same rules of engagement may not apply to both. As WFH gains wider acceptance leading to policies being readied to mainstream it, organisations will have to recognise the distinction between the applicability of HR polices for the WFH-ready workers and the frontline workforce, including how they are measured, compensated, rewarded, etc., with the thrust on the former around outcomes and new outcome-oriented metrics while the latter may continue around the more traditional metrics tweaked to reflect a greater emphasis on health, safety, insurance, etc.
Breeding resiliency in the new work culture
At the onset, the traditional, though flawed, interpretation of work-life balance will evolve to a better appreciation of work-life integration. At the centre, we need technology to enable our actions and ensure that the business is well equipped for the unforeseen future. WFH technology is hygiene and can be easily enabled for enterprises with VPN, collaborative tools, identity and access management, as we have done for several organisations over the past few years and more, as SOS provisioning in the past few weeks. However, what organisations need to think through is business continuity (BCP) on a scale never thought through before. This, keeping in mind the significant acceleration expected in the demand and supply of remotely delivered services and automation.
Trust: The currency on an all-time high
And lastly, for the new culture to take roots, we will need to abandon our age-old notion of considering productivity equivalent to the workforce being tied to their physical office location. We will have to start placing more faith in them to be productive and working towards business goals even when they are beyond the confines of an office. The relationship between businesses and their workforce will be re-defined with new expectations. In this new normal, outcome and not location will be the parameter of success for productivity. And trust should be the foundation that holds it in place.
As Yuval Noah Harari says, ‘Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless’. When life (as we used to know it) resumes from its current pause mode, let’s remember to carry this knowledge with us and use it to make the changes we need to, to make our businesses stronger, more resilient, and lastly, more humane.
The writer is CEO, GTM, Asia Pacific at NTT Ltd.