(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)
Work from home, a practice businesses were compelled to adopt due to Covid, was initially seen as a 'disruptive' outcome of the pandemic lockdown for both the corporate body as well as the employees — it had particularly forced the latter to remain indoors and thus put on them the onus of proving their continued utility for their paymasters.
Established organizations, however, quickly realized the importance of striking a 'give and take' for stabilizing the arrangements of working from home for the benefit of both sides. The challenge primarily was for the human resource development leaders who were suddenly required to get off their high horse and take to the 'hands on' business of getting the employees attuned to the altered work environment, maintaining the level of productivity and retaining organizational loyalty in a situation of remote connectivity.
The real test for them was to ensure that employee engagement remained at par. However, what was initially a grudging acceptance of a 'compulsion' by both sides soon became a comfortable 'option' for the employee and somewhere a 'cost-effective' alternative for the corporate body as well.
A balance has since been struck and a hybrid model worked out to serve the best interests of both. Studies have revealed many more dimensions of the new arrangement and there are learnings that are enriching the field of business management.
Perhaps the biggest upshot of the Covid disruption is that all organizations were prepared to switch over to a need-based adoption of a combination of work from home and the physical presence of members for transacting business at the corporate headquarters.
There is little doubt that the Hybrid Work Environment is an evolutionary outcome of the exposure of businesses to the pandemic restrictions and since 'evolution' always had a positive connotation, it is not surprising that a balance of work from home with duties in the corporate 'office' has come to stay with most organizations.
As already mentioned, a new burden has fallen on those handling human resource development in terms of using re-skilling, up-skilling and multitasking to improve the utilization of the available manpower and enhance efficiency that was by definition, a measure of 'productivity per unit of time'.
Methods had to be devised for 'messaging' it to all employees that they could bank on the organization's 'nurtural' response to any mental distress caused to any member working from home, on account of personal or family illness, introducing an appropriate form of supervisory interaction to ensure that the employee did not recede into a zone of 'personal convenience' at the cost of the corporate good and restating the 'mission' of the organization for everybody from time to time.
Clearly innovative human resource management programmes needed to be devised to cope with the new situation. Welfarism had to become a more visible element of these programmes even as care was taken to get the optimal best out of the employees, for the organization. Employee's workplace experience was always valued by the corporate body, but in the new situation, the feedback from below was even more important for the practicability of its application for maximizing productivity.
In any organization, the lower half of the pyramid comprises people who implement the decisions and policies coming in from the top, including the 'team leaders' who took responsibility for successful delivery.
Above these were the senior executives leading different verticals who with a clear understanding of the corporate strategies — to which they might have contributed in varying degrees by providing inputs at the time of policy formulation — provided broad supervision to the employees below and also a solution for a contingency at work arising out of 'labour issues', staff problems or the questions of logistics.
A smaller part of the top of the pyramid was always reserved for the 'owners' of the business including the members of the Board of Directors who set the policies in mutual consultations after taking the 'risk assessment' into consideration and obtaining the advice of any consultants commissioned for the purpose.
Before the Covid crisis, all businesses ran a certain 'back office' component besides assimilating largely the call of computerization in their functioning and work from home became a larger version of these methodologies, primarily for overcoming a transient difficulty.
With the passage of time, however, a conscious adoption of the Hybrid Work Environment has been taking place on a combination of employee preference, assurance of output and the element of cost-effectiveness accruing from dispensing the need for maintaining an ostentatious corporate headquarters where every employee wants to be accommodated, stoppage of allowances for travel and reducing the budget on hospitality. Work from home cut differentially between the two broad businesses — manufacturing and retail with the latter drawing heavily on IT-based delivery systems, from before. The technology could enhance production efficiency but never replace human hands at the assembly line beyond a certain degree of application of AI in its processes.
Incidentally, AI could help expand both the manufacturing and service sector but did not really alter the work from home scenario differential that existed in the businesses of both 'production' and 'delivery' — the two basic lines of economic activity.
It came as no surprise that the biggest gainers of the Covid restrictions were the home delivery businesses led by Amazon, which also happened to have one of the largest IT networks in its support at the global level.
Expansion of retail and delivery is a gift of the pandemic and this will come to stay on a path of competitive growth because the demand is reaching new levels and what is provoked by the compulsion of lockdowns has become a facilitator of customer's choice and convenience.
The classic IT industry has a natural growth and what the pandemic did was give it a fillip through the work from home dynamics. Globalization of this industry boomed as the Covid did not come in its way at all and IT drove it all through as before.
Sustainability of the Hybrid Work Environment is the big point of debate now as the question is about whether it is going to be the new normal. IT industries had the existing logistic pattern of a very large number of employees working under one roof which had built-in cost-effectiveness and brought the advantage of 'togetherness at the workplace'.
A statement from TCS forecasting a share of just 25 per cent of employees attending office in future, however, shows that the balance would continue to be in favour of work from home. At the same time, TCS has projected the need for 50,000 of its partners to come to the office thrice a week. It is true that many jobs could be performed better from the peaceful atmosphere of the home that allows for better concentration and hence a higher output.
However, as far as the policymakers are concerned, nothing could be better than the serene Board Room for sharing thoughts and putting multiple minds together for reaching a strategic decision. It can be said, therefore, that Hybrid Work Environment would be adopted with flexibility about timings and proportion of employees called to the workplace at a given point of time.
The arrangement will be sustained by the excitement of variables created for everybody and the pervasive expertise of human resource management that would be called into play all the time.
Three more features of the new normal have come into bold relief. First, in the hybrid work situation, the merit of the individual employee stands out and it would be difficult to hide mediocrity behind the crowded environment of the normal workplace.
Quality of leadership and decisiveness of the individual also shows up making it easier for the senior echelons to reach a correct performance evaluation. In a sense, the evolved situation further underscores the principle that the individual is the centre of all productivity.
Secondly, Covid proved to be an equalizer for businesses — big and small — because the same parameters governed the available human resource for all entities. Those who fostered organizational loyalty by taking better care of the employees wielded an advantage. It was necessary to know what a subordinate was facing beyond the working relationship — at home — and show an accommodative and sympathetic response. Hybrid Work Environment has made it easy for the organizational leaders to do that for there is flexibility about allotment of duties, and the suspicion of helping a 'favourite' — which was deemed to be a commonplace phenomenon in normal times - is not there.
Seniors and juniors have been brought closer to each other and 'coworking' spaces have been made more harmonious. The bosses cannot afford to be aloof from their men and have to get used to the new requirement where they would be available for giving their guidance asked for by the subordinates, at any level.
The advantages offered by the new normal have to be preserved.
And finally, the importance of information or business intelligence has multiplied because human channels are less active for a lack of mobility. For planning a new venture or affecting a course correction, a proper evaluation of risks and opportunities has to be made and this exercise was rendered more difficult in Covid times. Internal information on how the enterprise is fairing would now include an examination of the protocols for 'securing' sensitive transactions and processes against unwanted disclosure, in place and the need for improving them.
It is important to ensure that organizational discipline in relation to security guidelines is being followed. The pandemic has forced equality of sorts on all players but it has also made the business world more competitive in as much as early readings on risks and opportunities would become a distinct source of advantage over others. In short, in the Hybrid Work Environment, higher principles of management would come into play and there would be a greater convergence of the interest of the employees and the legitimate commercial objectives of the business enterprise. (IANS)