Tapping the Psychological Contract of working from home

What is a 'leader' in this new world? How do you effectively manage the evolving dynamics of the employee-supervisor-employer relationship? Traditional approaches have to be supplemented by newer options

Updated: Jul 15, 2020 07:27:19 PM UTC
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In literally a matter of weeks, a teensy weensy novel coronavirus has upended the way we work and live. An apocalypse looms large, as an unaffordable national health care crisis aggravates the pocket-book.

To facilitate social distancing and self-isolation intended to curb the pandemic, working from home, once an exception or an oddity, has now become the new norm. This poses new challenges to efficiently and effectively manage the evolving dynamics of the complex employee-supervisor-employer relationship. Traditional approaches used to motivate people have to be supplemented and complemented by newer options.

What makes one a leader? The defining characteristics include the ability to reflect beyond the obvious and inculcate soft skills that transform people. This is manifest in channelling people’s energy constructively, towards handling organisational interdependence, instead of being dissipated in all sorts of dysfunctional pursuits.

Effective leaders rely on a judicious use of management control mechanisms to motivate people. The market mechanism—the commercial contract, ensures that people are paid a fair wage; the bureaucratic mechanism—the employment contract, addresses Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors; while the clan control mechanism—the psychological contract, focuses on motivators.

The Psychological Contract addresses what Chester Barnard identified as an individual employee’s “Zone of Indifference.” It is based on unwritten expectation between the individual and organisation. For example, individuals expect “good” bosses; the organisation expects effort and loyalty. The individual seeks a career, not just a job; the organisation in turn, expects initiative and creativity.

Ultimately, it is fulfilment of the Psychological Contract that fosters organisational citizenship behaviour, energising people to go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of the organisation and its mission. It is therefore the responsibility of supervisors to fathom the intangible expectations of those who report to them directly.

When mutual obligations are not fulfilled or violated, a feeling of being inequitably treated weakens the bond between the employee and the organisation. For example, during the lockdown in India, some Bengaluru-based IT companies insist employees must report to work at the office daily. "But the top people are all working from home..."

Traditional paper shuffling administrators are usually focused on process-driven bureaucratic control mechanisms. Employees became zombies. Intellectual Gullivers get tied down by supervisory Lilliputians enforcing the letter of the rulebook.

Some bosses became gung-ho about results. They ruthlessly used Market Control Mechanisms, solely based on monetary incentives to reward high performers. Such commercial contracts produced mercenaries who know how to game the system, whatever it takes.

How do we break this vicious cycle?

The management philosophy of the late Dr. G Venkataswamy, founder of Madurai based Aravind Eye Care Systems (AECS), provides the key. Readers are advised to view the video 'Infinite Vision', available on YouTube.

The What of AECS is to “Eradicate needless/preventable blindness.”; the How of AECS is to “Adapt McDonald’s model of standardization, reliability and efficiency, to deliver affordable, world-class eye care.”; and the Why of AECS: “If you help others, it is yourself you are helping! If you heal others, it is yourself you are healing!”

Articulating a 'why' that inspires by tapping the Psychological Contract is what differentiates a leader from paper shuffling administrators or glorified plantation overseers.

The remote work challenge

Working remotely is not new. But today, it is not just for flexibility. It is shaking the very foundations of running several businesses.

In addition to global giants like Twitter, even our own venerable Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is exploring this option. Recently, TCS announced that, post Covid-19, offices will only need 25% of their total strength on any given day. The new secure borderless workspaces (SBWS) model essentially means that TCS is going to rethink a business model—hinting that it may be time to go employee-lite.

What will the future look like if employees across the hierarchy need to work remotely for weeks or months together? That is a situation several organisations should prepare The industry is moving from camaraderie across the desk to remote friendship with social distancing.

This is where neoskilling helps. The secret lies in making a mental metamorphosis, whereby one avoids the single-loop trap by thinking obliquely, focusing on the nonobvious where small changes bring big results. Neoskilling is a change in mindset through the proactive identification and development of capabilities, considering not just today’s needs but those of tomorrow too. In a digital Internet of Things (IoT) world, adoption of robots and “deep learning” Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, means that the way work is done will undergo fundamental transformation. Such profound changes call for re-evaluating the customer-employee-employer interface and relationship.

What will be required to work in a home work environment? From a technology perspective, over and beyond computation and broadband, will be cyber security. Secure sharing of ideas, information and documents outside the firewalls of the organisation will be required with external partners.

The Psychological Contract between employees and the organization will gain prominence. Everything an employee is expected to perform cannot be captured in black and white. They will be expected to figure out how to get work done, over and beyond their job description and what their appointment order says.

L Prasad is Professor (Rtd), Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. S Ramachandran is Principal Consultant, Infosys Knowledge Institute. This article draws on concepts presented in their book “Neoskilling for Digital Transformation and the Artificial Intelligence Revolution”, Wiley India, 2019.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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