Beyond Covid: Towards a ‘new normal’ at work

The Asian Age.  | Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

Opinion, Columnists

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing these very companies to reredefine their offices as post-Covid workplaces

Work from home

Last month Microsoft joined the new-age league -- Facebook, Twitter, Google and Salesforce -- in bringing forth an extended work-from-home policy. But the Redmond-based tech giant went further and announced that Microsoft employees all over the world can now opt to work from home permanently, embedding the concept of the hybrid workplace in the system. When a company’s product is virtual, the processes can also be virtual, it would seem. No doubt there is the inevitable fine print about approvals and proportions. Still, is it a feasible proposition?

Microsoft’s communiqué is compelling and competitive, and the narrative is bold -- rather than making it about lockdowns and Covid-19 compliances, it indicates to us what it has learnt from and developed during the pandemic, to that extent embodying the concept of “the new normal”. But more important, could this be the beginning of a new era of trust and partnership between employer and employee? That’s the question managers are struggling with.

Undoubtedly, the transition to that virtual partnership will be less arduous for the technology and consulting companies. The tech industry has been responsible for systematising work flow and work processes in new ways. The “waterfall” process in management of software development process, for example, entailed a process from brainstorming to delivery that depended on long periods of low communication and reporting. But the new “agile” systems stipulate more rapid dipstick project management sequences such as regular meetings and frequent stocktaking to ensure that processes don’t go askew and that projects are completed within defined timelines with measurable assessments. The deliverables in such cases are data-driven and immediately measurable, potentially eliminating the need for human evaluation.

Because virtuality entails the use of networks, security is an anxiety to overcome. In several industries, virtual private networks (VPNs) or other security systems are par for the course. Those at management levels of the tech industry point out that these kinds of systems make their development projects more failsafe and more or less agnostic of geography. It reduces the anxiety of silence while providing a solution for regular communication and stocktaking, enabling any course correction when needed. Assessment of a project could happen every two weeks, for example, feeding into a quantified framework of sprints (the period of assessment) and velocities (points awarded during each sprint). But cybersecurity applications also often serve as surveillance or monitoring systems. So, several of these measures are more than changes solely related to coronavirus-compliance.

Managers in American tech companies say these points per period have shown a consistent and significant upward trend after a work-from-home mandate. This means productivity has gone up, at least in that industry. Does this mean employees are happier, or more efficient, as a result of sharper processes? That’s a good question. For the employee, it allows a better work-life balance. The employer enjoys a wider and deeper hiring catchment area because a Microsoft-like policy unlocks opportunities for talented people who are reluctant or unable to relocate for work. On the other hand, even in the United States, remote locations come with bandwidth issues, and most tech companies pay employees an incentive each month so that the employee can afford a reliable network connection.

That problem is compounded in an Indian environment, where there is far more caution in extending the work-from-home arrangement beyond the least possible period. Tech clusters like those in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Gurgaon attract a diverse workforce. Many employees come to these hubs from smaller towns. In a lockdown work-from-home scenario, a significant proportion of them choose to work from their native towns, where the necessary infrastructure -- including power supply, connectivity and bandwidth -- is often suspect. This unreliable infrastructure has compelled many employers to dissuade employees from travelling or to provide portable connectivity devices such as dongles.

That is why it does not come as a surprise that the heads of even technology companies in India do not believe that virtual working -- even for non-administrative functions -- can be a permanent arrangement. Most of them hanker to go back to the old normal. Employers have calibrated their processes to better quantify the output, but in the absence of qualitative evaluation, they may not be entirely comfortable with an artificial adjustment. On the other hand, strict quantification of processes and output also sets up an alluring case for using artificial intelligence (AI). Already, there have been layoffs and consolidation or restructuring of processes. While the ongoing cutting-edge research on AI as a supplement to human tasks is well-documented, techies worry -- thanks to the pandemic -- about the enhanced possibility that automation could replace some human processes.

Work-from-home policies are essentially policies of space and time. Employers are having a hard time grappling with them because what was meant to be a temporary fix has unearthed more challenges than they had bargained for. Most technology employers allow employees to work at their own pace, although filling out time sheets is still the norm among Indian companies. So, for many human resources (HR) managers, the new issue is as much about the process as about the theory. On one hand, HR managers are now grappling with effective ways of monitoring. Without it, they find it difficult to fit the existing matrix of periodic assessments and suchlike. On the other, should they continue the surveillance-like monitoring, or should they simply trust the employee more?

Psychological impacts of a protracted work-from-home situation have been well-documented, but Indian companies face additional challenges. The more traditional HR systems among them are accustomed to ways of monitoring their employees’ time and space. The work-from-home situation’s best and worst feature may be the flexibility of time and space. Redefined office space is a major reason many youngsters hanker to work at the New Age “cool” technology companies. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing these very companies to reredefine their offices as post-Covid workplaces. Home is the best place to work from, some employers seem to be saying. For now. The space to watch over the next few months will be whether systems manage to build on their current success, or the compulsion of human communication and physicality render them unviable.