By | Krish Shankar | Group Head- Human Resources at Infosys, and also Hon President of National HRD Network, India
As the pandemic made its surge across the world, many of us managed to work from home for long periods of time. Soon there was talk of a ‘new normal’ – of how everything could be remotely done. We have had people questioning the need for offices, of some declaring a specific percentage to work from home and much heralding of a revolutionary change. While no doubt there will be significant change, we need to look at this concept of work from home more deeply before we jump to conclusions. Things are much more nuanced!
So what has Covid-19 taught us? At the outset, that more work can be done remotely, for more time and more effectively than we initially imagined. It has also spawned various productivity tools that now complement the email and the phone as the key modes of communication. We now have chats/instant messengers, video calls, document sharing/co-creation systems, webinar systems, etc.- so there is a plethora of tools and products that can aid us to work remotely. I am sure there will be more sophisticated tools that will help us collaborate and work from anywhere. So, in a way, the individual work productivity can be enhanced even if we work remotely.
But there are other elements of productivity that we need to look at. What about ‘Collaborative productivity? Where productivity is very closely dependent on your other team members. For example, in an agile development team. Research shows that if the whole team is in one room, has common visual signaling/update systems, they are much productive. And what about ‘Idea or creative productivity’ – where you come up with new ideas to drive improvement and innovation. These ideas normally come from interactions with others, especially with those who you normally don’t meet. The best innovative ideas come from adapting cross disciplinary insights, sometimes with serendipitous encounters. These additional facets of our productivity are what offices provide, which we might miss when we are virtual.
But let’s also look at what else does an office provide. First, if provides an identity, a sense of pride, and even belonging. The office buildings are the settings for stories that build culture, and pride. These buildings, the manicured lawns, the trees, the meeting rooms, cafeterias and hallways resonate with stories. Imagine a young engineer walking through the Infosys campus- every tree or building would have a story and remind them of the company values.
In addition, the office setting helps people learn. As a young manager, I have learnt more from sitting in meetings and watching senior leaders enact a masterclass and learning from those (it’s a different matter that after you learn what to do, you have to actually do it well- maybe that’s where I fell a bit short!) But the office setting enables learning from peers. I heard a story of freshly minted graduate recruit in a company who went into lockdown within a couple of days of joining. He then called his friend and asked “My manager messaged saying he is on the bridge, what does he mean? Which bridge is that?” The corporate language and hacks, the little twists or ways of working in organisation are always learnt from peers- and a remote working environment would be deprived of that.
Like many others from a manufacturing background, one of the things I love to do is the age-old practice of ‘MBWA’ – management by walking around. The office is ideal for that- saunter off for a nice walk after lunch, and just drop in on our teams and chat up. It helps you get a first-hand feel of what the teams are doing and any challenges they face, and it gives you an opportunity to communicate and connect the larger purpose of the organization. That’s another thing that we need to think of!
Therefore, will we all be working remotely in the future? What would be a likely scenario? Here are a few thoughts that we could keep in mind as we move towards remote working at scale, so that we don’t throw the baby with the bathwater but leverage the strengths of the physical world in some way.
- Jobs are of many types- those that primarily need individual work productivity would seamlessly move into remote working. However, for those that need collaborative productivity or idea productivity, we will need to find ways in which those teams can come together or get the right external inputs for effectiveness.
- As we saw earlier, the office adds its own magic to the organization and its culture. To ensure that the magic is harnessed, the role of the office would change from being a place where we all land up to do work, to a place which enhances collaboration and connection. Getting teams to come together for one or two days a week, to connect and share ideas would go a long way in strengthening the remote working. Thus, in a way, we will end up in a ‘hybrid remote’ world- based on the type of jobs, we may need teams to come together and connect at different frequencies. So roughly one estimates that about 80% of people could work remotely, anywhere between 20-80% of their time!
- Redesign of office workspaces will be critical- offices will probably have more meeting areas for formal and informal meetings rather than rows of workstations. This is where one sees the big presence and use of the ‘phygital’ infrastructure.
- As we move to work more remotely, we will have to find ways to replicate some of the unique features of us working physically together. For instance, in learning, we need to create many ‘learning/support communities’ that can meet many needs. If a fresh recruit wants to know how to fill in a request for an expense claim, he should be able to do instantly by reaching out to communities. Nurturing such virtual communities for numerous areas, from wellness to tech support to sports, would be needed.
- Culture building and reinforcement will be critical, though I guess we will soon come up with digital equivalents of the key artifacts, symbols and events that are ‘culture markers’. But this is one area where the HR teams need to think carefully about. Ensuring employees have greater access to leaders across all media will be critical. Virtual mentoring, increased leader-teach sessions, frequent chat sessions etc. will have to be planned- getting more leaders visible to all.
- An increased amount of remote working enables flexibility to employees, and this would open up a larger talent pool that one can tap into. This will call for more flexibility in how we hire and deploy talent.
- Rethinking the employee experience will be critical. We hear of people stressed by prolonged remote working- both due to a lack of social connect as well as due to blurred lines between work and home. As we redesign our future workplaces, we need to put employee experience and their overall well-being at the heart of it.
In conclusion, while we are all ostensibly going towards a greater amount of remote working, we need to ensure that we plan it and do in a thoughtful way. The office will reduce in its omnipresence in our lives- but we need to consciously build some of the key elements to make the hybrid remote working productive and an enjoyable experience for all. I am reminded of a very simple concept that Steven Covey wrote about in the 7 Habits book- about Production and Production Capability. The office environment nurtured our ‘production capability’- our capacity and capability to work and produce effective output, and we should ensure that those active ingredients are somehow adapted for the remote working world.