Will work ever be the same again?

Titled “Strategies For Returning To Work”, the webinar led one to expect slot-machine answers to the question of “how” to get back to the cubicle when partial normality returns.

As it turned out, the one-hour long exercise over Zoom, organised by Freshworks, was pleasantly wide-angled in its focus, covering answers to the “whys” and “why-nots” around the future of work, both near and far.

Significantly, the panellists drawn from three SaaS companies — Girish Mathrubootham, Founder & CEO, Freshworks; Suresh Sambandam, CEO, KissFlow; Krish Subramaniam, Co-founder & CEO, Chargebee — explored newer work scenarios for a post-COVID-19 world.

Early on, moderator Suman Gopalan, CHRO at Freshworks, quizzed the panellists about the schedules for opening their offices, and the three were on the same page about continuing with remote-working as long as it would be safe for employees to head back to their desks, and the free-wheeling answers threw up some thought-provoking ideas — vulnerability score; cultural onboarding; transfer of intangibles; and two inter-related concepts “work from anywhere" and “hybrid approach to remote working”.

Vulnerability score

On the question of being ready to work in a world that is only partially-normal and where the Coronavirus infection is a continuing threat, Girish dwelt on a form of readiness that had two components to it — the workplace and the workforce.

Workplace readiness is straightforward and likely to be seen as a pressing necessity, and precautions may be automatically put in place, and these, as Girish listed, would include redrawn floor plans to promote social distancing, making certain processes contact-less such as ordering food from the cafeteria; and then there is a caboodle of obvious exercises including sanitisation and thermal screening that ought to be carried out.

The necessity of assessing workforce readiness may not be as obvious and can be easily missed.

Girish pointed out that his company’s strategy for opening offices, whenever that would happen, and expecting employees to return to office included calculating the “vulnerability score” of each employee, and this would factor in whether they had at-risk people at home. Girish called transport another major component. Freshworks has decided to offer work from home to its employees at least till the end of the year. Post-this period, employees either travelled by their own cars or took the office cabs, and in the latter situation, social distancing norms would be spelt out.

“Nobody should be allowed to take public transport,” explained Girish, adding that all safety protocols were laid down in a playbook.

Work from anywhere

“We are seriously evaluating moving our company to a full-fledged remote-working format,” declared Suresh, and explained that part of the rationale for considering this course was productivity being up by 20 p.c. during this work-from-home period.

He related how before COVID-19 happened, KissFlow was working out a deal to have a larger workplace, and the exercise fell through. Thanks to learnings from the COVID-19 situation, Suresh elaborated, the plan for a larger space had been abandoned forever. The thought process was in fact travelling in the opposite direction now — it is about moving into a smaller functional office, and getting the workforce equipped to work largely from home, actually from “anywhere”.

Thinking aloud, he pictured for the participants a future scenario of his employees working from their home towns.

“Because I am a big believer in the equality of urban versus rural populations,” disclosed Suresh, adding that many of his senior managers were from small towns. Conceding that it might be a bit premature to present this idea in a public forum, he however pointed out that there was already some discussion internally around this possibility.

Suresh believes the “Work From Anywhere” model could be an answer to lop-sided development that unfairly favoured urban geographies.

If the corporate workforce were distributed, it could bring greater “purchasing power” to small towns, leading to improvement in social infrastructure, he reasoned it out.

Adding to Suresh’s observation, it could also check urban congestion and agglomeration.

Hybrid approach

Krish guided the discussion along what he termed a “hybrid approach” to remote working, one that would take employees’ preference into consideration, before it did anything else.

In this approach, Krish expounded, “Everyone works remotely, and working out of offices becomes optional, with multiple offices being provided (to the workforce).” The choice of whether they worked from home or office would be left entirely to the employees, Krish added.

Girish was also favourable to the notion of moving out of huge centralised offices to smaller distributed offices, in a post-COVID scenario.

Girish also foresaw a time and situation where people tired of being cooped up in their ‘home offices’, and would seek the energising influence of in-person interactions with colleagues.

So, Girish said companies should reconcile the contradictions by catering to both situations — the need to be social and interact with colleagues in a work environment, and also the need to work from home. Melding a WFH culture with a distributed-offices set-up could achieve these goals.

‘Workforce as workplace’

When the webinar began, Girish made a statement — “At Freshworks, we were working from 13 offices; and we are now working from 3,000 offices. That is the way we look at it.” While recapitulating one round of discussion, Suman brought up the notion of “workforce as workplace” on the basis of what was being shared by the panellists from their individual experiences steering their companies through these times.

When organisations start viewing employees as an office in themselves, the question that organically follows from this premise is: “How well is this ‘office’ developed and equipped with essentials?”

Girish points out that his company prepared for the lockdown in Chennai ahead of the national lockdown announcement, having seen how the crisis was panning out in Europe and America, where the company has offices.

The preparation included providing employees with an allowance for setting up a home office — “so they could buy an ergonomic chair, a big monitor or headsets. We did this early on, and therefore many of the employees could have these things delivered before the lockdown.”

Of course, the three panellists got down to discussing the nuts and bolts of a home office, which obviously included basic connectivity, and tech tools to carry out work processes and also engagement and wellness tools.

It would be equally important to work on the employees skill-sets, tuning them for a work-from-home scenario. Krish brought up the question of employees on a work-from-home system being able to present ideas effectively not just via videos, but also in words, more specifically in the written format, and sharing it through digital documents with colleagues, so that they are able to build on each other’s work.

Work model

In a remote-working set-up, questions of employee engagement and productivity can be better addressed in smaller units. Suresh related how they reorganised their company “in terms of business units under each product line so that it becomes much easier for us to manage small units”.

Suresh — and also Girish in a brief reference — touched upon the advantage of having an OKR (outcomes and key results) model instead of an output-based model, in such a work scenario.

Access to talent

Girish and Krish drew attention to how such alternative work models would change the dynamics of talent acquisition.

“We were in a situation where so many people wanted to work for Freshworks, but they were not able to move to Chennai,” remembered Girish, and remarked that the “work from anywhere” model was going to increase access to talent by leaps and bounds.

Girish also pointed out that the flexi work model would open up a entire talent pool, especially homemakers who would not give up their careers for dealing with a situation on the home front, if they were presented with the option of flexi work arrangement.

Cultural onboarding

While the panellists delved into the disadvantages of the work-from-home model, the question of cultural onboarding came up.

Suresh expressed his bewilderment over how to integrate those recruited in the middle of a full-fledged remote-working scenario into the company's cultural process. He wondered how when regular cultural onboarding programmes, including “Lunch with the CEO”, were out of the equation now, new recruits could be offered an effective cultural baptism. Girish built on the idea, explaining that onboarding on culture was a challenge even where remote (distributed) offices were concerned.

Transfer of intangibles

In a WFH scenario, tangible resources are often shifted from office to home, so that employees could continue to work with the same level of efficiency. Can the intangibles be shifted too, as they too are often factors driving engagement and productivity? Girish pointed out that his company’s cultural value was “happy work environment”.

“As everyone is working at home, the question was: ‘How do we take the happy work environment that we have created at office and move it home?’ ” Girish recalled. This value was created for the remote-working workforce, he explained, by organising virtual activities including online DJs, yoga and meditation classes, fitness programmes; and competitions, which included a hackathon and a best Zoom background competition.

Suresh explained that his organisation had managed to keep its cultural DNA from being shredded and also its employees’ morale up by continually engaging with employees through a series of programmes. Suresh elaborated: These included “Lockdown Diaries”, where the employees got together and did podcasts, 54 of them did it over 15 episodes; there was a 21-day Lockdown Challenge; every week the workfroce met on Friday on what is called Virtual Town Hall; and there was an exercise “Engineering Inner Spirituality” where the entire company got together to study the lessons of a book, Leadership And Self-deception (by The Arbinger Institute). “It was aimed at basically helping individual employees understand internally who they are,” Suresh added.

Communication matters

In the new normal, where the workforce will be significantly distributed, clear communication from the leadership would be key to ensuring objectives are met.

“Don't assume that no news is good news, people need to hear and see you,” stated Girish, adding that in the last few weeks, he had spent more time with employees than he would over a one-year time period .

Suresh spoke about how he had an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with the employees, just to remove the veil of uncertainty the COVID-19 situation had cast over the future.

Krish explained how the top leadership in his company was engaging more frequently with the workforce, and one sign of that was moving the monthly all-hands to a weekly all-hands exercise.

At the end of the webinar, when the panellists summed up the discussion, Krish made an observation about how the COVID-19 situation is an opportunity to question all our assumptions (about how work could be done), and go back to first principles.

That is a thought worth chewing and even acting on.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 12:17:30 AM |

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