Abhijit Bhaduri
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Healing the Workplace with Trust

By | Abhijit Bhaduri | Founder Abhijit Bhaduri Associates | ex CLO Wipro Technologies

Our relationship with our work, our colleagues and leaders and the workplace has changed during the lockdown. We need to heal the workplace by building trust in the ecosystem.

The VUCA workplaces

On March 24, 2020 the world of work changed. The 21 day lock down started in India. Since then, I have heard of virtual funerals and weddings. Virtual job interviews, virtual farewells and virtual layoffs. We are all doing things in manners not accustomed to. We are learning to question our assumptions about why we need a workplace to work. The norms of the workplace that have remained unchanged for a century stand broken. To navigate this unfamiliar world we need to build trust in the workplace.

The wheels of fortune turned and created a fresh list of winners and losers. Travel, entertainment, hotels and ancillary activities took a beating. Start-ups that had just raised funds were heaving a sigh of relief for having dodged a bullet. Grand IPOs were shelved.

Read: Why do we work?

A large insurance provider had kept payroll and performance data on their intranet. The lock down prevented them from accessing their intranet. PeopleStrong, their HR platform provider had to get a team to work for 48 hours at a stretch to ensure salaries were not delayed. This is exactly how a tsunami strikes the unsuspecting. Only this time the pandemic triggered a digital tsunami. Everything was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The VUCA world is well and truly here.

Healing the WorkplaceThe ground reality of VUCA

For years leadership development programs have been talking about dealing with a VUCA world. The pandemic has made us experience what each alphabet stands for in the VUCA world.

  • V = Volatility: The nature and speed of change was blindingly fast. Businesses had to deal with the sudden lock down to curb the pandemic. The lock down in India triggered the biggest migration on foot since partition. The announcement caught about 120 million migrant workers unprepared. In the absence of their daily wages they had travel back to their villages on foot.
  • U = Uncertainty: No one knows when the situation will return to “normalcy”. Experts are as clueless as the illiterate. The global economy is in the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression. All plans are in suspended animation.
  • C = Complexity: Leaders are having to make choices that are complex. Social distancing and keeping people indoor contains the disease but is hard on the economy. Should the business lay off people or reduce salaries across the board to save jobs.
  • A = Ambiguity: Everyday leaders are having to take decisions which have no precedence. Should the business go ahead with the additional costs of annual increments? Job offers have been withdrawn leaving people in between jobs.People are watching funerals of their loved ones on video, unable to travel. Video conferences are forcing colleagues to peek inside homes of their managers and team members.

Read: Uncertain times are stressful. Here is what you can do

Healing the workplace with trust

Healing the WorkplaceWhile the organized sector grappled with remote work, the unorganized sector grappled with survival. Trust in the workplace relationships has been reset for everyone. It has changed our equation with work, our colleagues and our employers. The norms that have governed workplaces have all been broken. The “discomfort that we are experiencing is grief”.

Residents of Jalandhar were delighted to see the Dhauladhar range of mountains because pollution levels dropped. The engineers on the ONGC rigs have spotted whales swimming by unafraid. The earth is healing itself. It is time the world of work got healed too. That begins with building trust.

1. Trusting remote workers

One of the IT majors had to buy 4,000 laptops for its workforce which had to start remote working overnight. In many businesses, remote work was a privilege, offered to a select group of senior leaders. The rest of the employees were never allowed this privilege. Overnight employees have discovered that remote work is possible for more roles than they imagined.

Laptop sales have shot up. The video conferencing software Zoom usage has skyrocketed. Zoom‘s trust levels have eroded given its track record on privacy and data security.

What is missing is trust between employees and their bosses. Suspicious employers are using software to track key-strokes and screenshots of remote workers. Employees wonder if remote-work will continue in future or is this a temporary reprieve from long commutes.

2. Trusting the employers’ actions.

Employees have never had to invite their bosses and colleagues into their home. Unscheduled video calls are eroding the privacy of the employee’s home. Employers often assume everyone has a dedicated workspace and high speed internet to do video calls.

The manager’s ability to build trust in the new paradigm is being tested. Employees wonder if the employer can be trusted to keep their job safe. Employers have to learn how to earn the trust of the employees by being able to build camaraderie, compassion and handling conflicts online. This is a skill gap that has got showcased prominently.

3. Trusting the health of everyone around.

The gig workers and freelancers have to fend for themselves and their loved ones when it comes to healthcare. This pandemic taught us that even one infected person can make the world come to a standstill. Unless everyone in the ecosystem is healthy, no one will be safe.

Businesses have to pool in part of their resources to provide healthcare coverage to freelancers and gig workers. Universal healthcare may be what enlightened self-interest may look like. Health insurance of the support staff employed by households must become part of everyone’s wages.

4. Trust in the times of Corona

Cybercriminals are leveraging the fear and panic around the pandemic to launch phishing operations disguised as Corona advisories. Cybersecurity experts are grappling with the challenge of data protection and privacy in this setting no one trained them for. The foundation of the $180 billion a year outsourcing industry in India that employs 4 million people is being scrutinized. Internal systems and call centers for many European and US companies are being run out of countries like Philippines and India. Trust needs to be re-established between the business and outsourcing industry.

Shrinking time horizons during stress

During times of stress, our time horizons shrink. We worry more about survival issues than long term prosperity. The root cause of the stress lies in the loss of trust between the employer and employee. We have moved from thinking about achieving self-actualization to fretting about survival.

Paranoid managers calling team members endlessly to check on them can be driven by true empathy or the desire for surveillance. Predictability is the antidote for the stress caused by uncertainty. Trust generates psychological safety. Employers need to trust the employees that they are equally vested in the survival of the business.

Every generation experiences the equivalent of a war, a natural disaster or psychological trauma caused by an event like Partition. These are also opportunities for new beginnings.

A time for us to heal the workplace

Healing the Workplace

One thing is for sure. The world of work has changed. The psychologist Erik Erikson refers to building trust as the first stage of human development. Knowing that we are interdependent, and we trust each other is the reason to hope for a better tomorrow. War and natural disasters can be powerful forces that form bonds that last a lifetime. We can turn this pandemic to be a force for rejuvenation.

Businesses have already reconciled to a few quarters of losses and sluggish growth. We have already discovered that work can also be done from home. Maybe the workplaces can be places where people go to get inspired and realize their potential. The earth is healing. Why not heal the workplaces too.


A version of this was published by Business Line dt 9 April 2020 Read previous columns <click here>

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