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Work From Home: If The Experiment Works, It Can Continue When The World is Better Again

Image for representation.

Image for representation.

Technology has undoubtedly played a big role in making the work from home transition simpler. And that’s at home and what your organization has deployed. A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the sort of productivity that we now enjoy with 100Mbps and faster internet lines.

As the COVID-19 situation was worsening in India and around the world, popular payments platform MobiKwik decided on March 12 to shift completely to the work from home from the very next day. Most organizations and their IT teams would have struggled with such a short turnaround time. Life has just not been the same the past few weeks. Some love it, the work from home bit, where interaction with other humans is minimal. It has been what they dreamt off all this while. For the rest, this has either been a bit of a rude shock and a new learning that isn’t exactly pleasant or something they have taken to with the ease reminiscent of a knife gliding through a cube of lightly warm butter. Whatever it may be, here we are in the lockdown in many countries. In fact, the realities of discomfort and ease are something that apply to corporates as well as the employees. “Our operations team works in shifts due to which they have workstations, so we organized rental laptops for all of them, configured them to our security protocols and made them available in less than 24 hours so that team could work seamlessly from their homes,” says Upasana Taku, co-founder and COO, MobiKwik. To have the entire team equipped for the work from home scenario, in less than a day, is no mean feat.

For many corporates too who preferred to have employees sit at their workstations for 8-9 hours a day, are finding this new learning quite interesting. Safe to say. Also, they had no choice. Technology has undoubtedly played a big role in making the transition simpler, at least at this time of a public health emergency. And that’s technology at home and technology that runs the very core of your organization’s core competence. A few years ago, with much slower broadband lines at home, it would have been hard to imagine the sort of productivity that we now enjoy with 100Mbps and faster internet lines. Add slick video meeting apps such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Apple FaceTime and Google Duo to the mix and instant messaging apps including the much-loved WhatsApp, Slack, iMessage and Facebook Messenger, and we have a full office setup ready at home.

Is it one big experiment?

In a way, this forced change was nothing new for some organizations. “For us, work from home or working remotely has been a 'new normal' for almost as long as we have been around. One of the key reasons is that we are fortunate to work in an industry where most of our work is 'knowledge' work, i.e. it involves sharing information, acting on information and exchanging and communicating on ideas, with clients as well as internal stakeholders. These things, thanks to modern technology, can happen from anywhere,” says Bhairav Shanth, co-founder and Managing Director, ITW Consulting. Indian e-commerce company Flipkart, incredibly popular would be putting it mildly, has been adopting quite a few tech enhancements in their daily workflow whether they are in office or working from home. “Flipsters are using video conferences to stay connected for meetings. We're encouraging employees across the organization to take a 'Digital Chai Break' and guiding them in scheduling their workday,” a Flipkart spokesperson tells us. Flipkart employees are referred to as Flipsters.

With examples such as MobiKwik in our midst, we cannot at all discount the genuine possibility that this current health emergency will be the harbinger of what could possibly be permanent change in the way we work. Raman Singh, co-founder and Chief Revenue Officer, CloudConnect Communications believes that this COVID-19 outbreak has caused organizations across the country to rethink the way they carry out day-to-day business. “Thankfully, we live in an age of technology, and ensuring seamless business continuity is not very tough – all we need are the right tools! With continued business communication and security at the top of their priority lists, organizations are now turning to remote working technologies to facilitate a work-from-home option for their employees,” he says.

But this change will only happen if the organization you work for has the infrastructure and the technology solutions in place to allow remote work, without any bottlenecks. “With the IT infrastructure of the most organizations being put to test now, we believe there will be long term impact of present situation on the workstyles and workplaces of Indian workforce. The organizations will have to re-assess their IT infrastructure strategy, focusing on the need to have right technological tools that support mobility, security and freedom to collaborate,” says Vickram Bedi, Senior Director (Personal Systems), HP Inc. for India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka.

Can any organization afford to not be work from home ready now?

There is the sense that some organizations weren’t prepared for this change, some had perhaps not envisioned it while some had been resisting this change for a while now. The difference between those who were, and those who weren’t, is becoming very clear right now. “Organizations in the past have embraced remote work policy, though not on a scale as big as this. However, the pressing circumstances have mandated us to accept our new social-distancing world,” admits Aakrit Vaish, co-founder and CEO, Haptik. The company which makes virtual assistants and relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) is the name behind the recently launched MyGov Corona Helpdesk on WhatsApp, that is designed to offer smart and instant responses to queries people may have about the Coronavirus, or COVID19. The attempt is to disseminate correct, crisp and precise information about how to protect oneself against the virus, at a time when fake news and misinformation are rampant on social networks and instant messaging platforms. On March 27, Haptik organized an online Counter-Strike gaming competition for employees as part of their work from initiative. For those who may not be well versed, Counter-Strike is a very popular first person shooter game. After all, working from home shouldn’t be designed to make employees feel guilty about not being in office, and measures such as this help in boosting morale significantly.

A lot of companies were putting emphasis on the person-to-person interactions, which are a part of the daily routine in certain functions that depend on everyone being in office every day. And rightly so, some would argue. There is also the person to person interaction angle which is given weightage. “At work, you meet team members by the water cooler, at the coffee table, in the alley. This creates a sense of presence if you don’t really interact with each other every day,” a Snapdeal spokesperson tells us. Their recommendation is that daily interactions, even if prescriptive, should remain even in remote work scenarios. But this too much weightage given to that? “The COVID19 epidemic has forced organizations to revisit their work from home policies and plan for a future where employees will work from home more frequently and for longer durations,” says Sandeep Goel, Senior Vice President - Technology, Moglix.

Preparedness was key, it seems

Over the past few weeks, technology giant Microsoft has shifted completely to a virtual workplace, for almost all of their operations. “Our top concern is the well-being of our employees and supporting our customers, partners and communities in maintaining business continuity during this challenging time. Technology can play a vital role in reducing the impact of COVID-19 on people and organizations, including helping people stay productive at work when they’re not able to be there physically. Across the global economy, we’re making sure employees can work remotely without sacrificing collaboration, productivity or security,” says Rajiv Sodhi, COO, Microsoft India. At this time, the company is actively working with large corporations, schools, and government bodies to help them transition to remote workplaces—these are also some examples of entities that haven’t really adopted the remote working culture over the years.

“Working from home used to be the exception to the rule; today it is becoming the new norm,” says Philipp Weiser, founder and managing director of remote desktop provider, AnyDesk Software GmbH. A lot of organizations have workflows that require employees to use the remote desktop software which the company offers, for quicker collaboration and communication within teams. AnyDesk says their software has been downloaded 170 million times and is used by more than 25,000 organizations in as many as 173 countries.

Schools Are Showing The Way to The Doubters

Video chats and video conferencing solutions play a very important role in the remote workplace jigsaw. Schools, for instance, are adopting the tech-enabled learning methods too. Two examples that Microsoft shares are The British School and Ardee School NFC in Delhi. Some of these transitions have been happening for a while now, simply fast-tracked by the demands of the COVID19 pandemic. “We got an Office 365 subscription for the entire school at the beginning of the school session in 2019 as it provided many tools for teaching and learning,” says Rashima V Varma, the head of The Ardee School, NFC. By having every student and teacher mapped to the Office 365 accounts, enabling them to use the Microsoft Teams app, when the governments asked school to close because of the Coronavirus, was simple and quick. “Even before the Delhi government announced school closures, we’d already done over a hundred dry runs (for classes on Teams) across the school. On the evening of March 5, the government announced the closure of primary schools and at 8:05 AM on March 6, we delivered our first class over Teams,” says Vanita Uppal OBE, director of The British School.

The matter of trust And Maintaining The Balance

Organizations which haven’t really implemented work from home as an option for employees often said that they cannot risk the balance of productivity shifting for the worse. But the answer perhaps lies with the organizations themselves, if they look hard enough. “We're encouraging parents with older children to get them involved in scheduling their priorities for the day and keep them engaged in this regard,” the Flipkart spokesperson tells us. Flipkart believes that inclusivity in this form helps employees balance the priorities. In fact, the company urges employees to get their young ones to join in on video meetings to greet their colleagues their parent’s work with. “It is building a strong sense of togetherness,” the company believes.

They aren’t the only example of an employee-first mindset. ITW Consulting’s Shanth says the keys to their success as an organization that encourages remote working comprises of two things—trust and outcome. “The one key item to making remote working work is trust and at ITW it's always been a two-way street. And we always have defined criteria for success for our employees in terms of outcome/output and not quantity,” he says. ITW Consulting makes it a point to not focus on metrics such as how many minutes employees were online or how many mails they answered in a day, for instance.

One way of ensuring the trust and productivity aspects remain in top shape, is the extra focus on communication. “Communicating consistently and improving the planning processes will be key to make working from home successful for both employees and organizations,” says Moglix’ Goel. Snapdeal also believes that communication is the key to uninterrupted work even as employees work remotely. “The key to success for any engagement is clear communication - remote or otherwise,” the Snapdeal spokesperson says.

Will this change remain?

Whether this is a lasting culture change, some aren’t exactly sure. “Well, in the current situation, social media is filled with rosy predictions of the future work culture and how remote working might just become the new norm. However, a pandemic is not the right time to determine the best possible outcome for workplace flexibility,” says Niraj Ranjan Rout, Co-Founder and CEO of Hiver, a SaaS platform that has clients in more than 30 countries. But Rout believes this does present companies with a rather interesting opportunity to innovate and adopt technology which will enable remote work in the years to come.

CloudConnect’s Singh is more optimistic. “As the virus continues to spread, everyone is wondering: Is work from home the new normal? The answer is a simple yes. For now, until the lockdown is lifted, working from is the only option for businesses looking at continued operations and profits. However, once organizations become comfortable with remote working during this period, we believe that a long-term transformation will occur. Nothing will be the same again,” he says. His belief is that even long after the lockdown is done and dusted with, work from home is something organizations would have become used to, and also found processes that would help employees retain productivity levels even when not working in a typical office environment.