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COVID-19: Are we standing at an inflexion point in the history of work?

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto  

As Corporate India continues to work remotely on a massive scale, this question is inevitable

The massive scale in which companies in India are remote-working now is a straw in the wind suggesting that the COVID-19 crisis will go down as a major inflexion point in the history of work.

It is likely to nudge the fence-sitters really hard, landing them on the side of the corporate garden where one will be treading on these pavers: One, greater digitialisation of work processes; two; greater reliance on distributed teams; and three, greater resolve to address long-pending questions around data protection.

Digitalisation mindset

“Before COVID-19, globally, even technologically much-advanced companies were willing to allow only 40 p.c. to 50 p.c. of their workforce to operate on the basis of a remote-working arrangement,” begins Rituparna Chakraborty, president, Indian Staffing Federation. “Globally, companies consider only one-third of those in the 25 to 65 age group eligible for a remote-working arrangement. Among those in the entry-level jobs, and aged below 25, only 7 p.c. are said to be allowed to remote-work. To remote-work, one has to rise to a particular role, and that usually comes with age. Now, the percentage is bound to change in all categories. Though I would not say there would be a dramatic adoption of remote-working, post COVID-19, I could still safely say there would be a significant increase in the percentage of the workforce that would remote-work from now on, and that includes companies in India. At the least, there will be a greater openness to work in a format where the workforce is distributed. Another thing that is for sure: Undue dependence on physical structures of work will be questioned. The lockdown is unprecedented, and it has underlined the need to be prepared digitally. There would be a digitalisation mindset, with efforts being made to digitalise the work flow as much as possible. So, a scenario where on day one, fresh recruits are by default handed laptops that are fully configured for remote working is not a far-fetched idea.”

Dynamic workplaces

Aditya Mishra, director and CEO, CIEL HR, points out that if the lessons from COVID-19 are internalised, there will be a rise in the number of companies that have a hard-desking policy. At present, those that have one constitute a miniscule part of the corporate world.

“In a futuristic scenario arising organically from the COVID-19 experience, companies may be inclined to considerably reduce costs incurred on account of real estate. On any given day, only a portion of the employees will report at the office for work, and this will be done to effect savings on overheads. So, if an organisation has 1000 employees, say, only 500 desks may be provided for, and this would enable the company to work in a smaller work space. At any given point, half of the workforce will be remote-working. As this workplace is dynamic, “desks” would be designed to fit roles, and not individuals. So, there won’t be a specific desk for anyone to return to, day after day. There will be executive desks, and if you are an executive, you log in to an executive desk with a password, and the password will also ensure that the phone has your number for that day. Similarly, there will be manager desks, and a manager can log in to one of them.”

Business agenda

Rituparna says the COVID-19 crisis may signify a point from where one can only expect a broader leadership mandate for remote-working, as the possibility and benefits of remote-working, particularly in the area of transactional work, have stood to reason, even in the case of traditional companies, some of which may be having an in-built resistance to a flexibility-driven working culture, “So far, remote working was a human-resource agenda, and now the odds are high that it will become a business and finance agenda as well,” she explains.

“Already, many organisations have a policy that allows sections of its employees to work from home for a given number of days in a month or year. This number will go up,” says Aditya.

The empathy factor

Earlier, the resistance to remote-working would have come from a section of the workforce, usually at the managerial level, and now when uniformly, across the board, the workforce is being pitch-forked into a mass remote-working arrangement, there is bound to be marked difference in the way managers perceive remote-working.

“There is a tendency to look down upon those who opt for work-from-home often, and there are also companies that would consider restructuring the compensation package of those who work-from-home often. But now, with everyone from the top of the totem pole to the bottom having had a taste of remote-working, that too in an incredibly remarkable way, hopefully, remote-working is seen for what it is — a tool that can be extremely effective, if used wisely, as something that tackles productivity-sappers such as long commutes. It can also be a counter to a 9to5 work culture that has fallen into such a rut that clock-watchers manage to pass off undetected, despite lack of sufficient productivity. In a remote-working arrangement, the work completed at the end of the day alone matters. A well-planned remote-working system can usher in a metrics-driven work culture,” says Aditya.

Data security

One challenge to promoting a remote-working culture that is as obvious as daylight is data security. Kamal Karanth, co-founder, Xpheno, a specialist staffing organisation, says: “The corporate world is accustomed to scenarios where even contract-based work is carried out at the office due to the demand for data protection, Now, due to the current exigency, a lot of work is being carried out of the office, because there is no other way to do it. Though two or three weeks make a short sample size, still from here, one can expect more openness to having non-IP work done outside office systems, either by remote-working employees or freelancers; and two, greater efforts to improve data security by making a variety of checks, including multi-factor authentication more cutting-edge.”

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 3:38:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/careers/is-the-covid-19-crisis-pushing-us-to-a-new-work-culture/article31220862.ece

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