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Future Workplaces: Balancing Individual and Corporate Interests

Ashwini Mehendale, Consultant for Business and Digital Transformation, writes about how today’s exceptional situation calls for fresh perspectives and creative solutions when it comes to designing future workplaces.

A RUDE AWAKENING

While many saw it coming slowly in the rear-view mirror, no one expected the Coronavirus to result in the biggest pile-up we have ever seen, that the entire global economy came to a standstill.

Overnight, lockdowns were announced by the governments in the hope of flattening the curve.

While the advent of vaccines heralds a new phase in managing the pandemic, however, the consensus is that the virus still holds the upper hand and we are busy reacting to its vagaries.

While contact intensive businesses came to a complete standstill, owing to social distancing priorities, other businesses barely managed to remain afloat. Essential services were identified and exempted by the authorities and allowed to operate at a reduced level of attendance. Businesses operating in hospitality, restaurants and malls, parcel and home delivery, theatres and amusement parks, travel, tourism, and small businesses had to shut down their operations over a weekend. Industries such as retail, predominantly FMCG and healthcare, pharma, banking, insurance, etc remained operational at minimal levels. Purely digital businesses, such as social media, broadcasting, streaming, news, and gaming got a spike from their customers who were held captive within the four walls. And businesses from the healthcare sector got so stretched that they started bursting from their seams.

One of the biggest consequences of this pandemic is the seemingly impossible leap that we made, from a monolithic industrial era centralized workplace to a completely distributed one. We may not find a better example from recent times on self-organization. The pandemic gave us energy so spontaneous that we defied conventional logic and jumped to a higher orbit.

To everyone’s surprise, our ingenious work-from-home model delivered a reasonably good level of productivity, some experts claim as high as 90% of the normal, and at a much-reduced level of resource deployment, that businesses fancy enshrining this new habit for the posterity.

A VIRUS THAT CHANGED OUR LIVES

Looking back from the future, am sure that we will identify our lives as before Covid-19 (BC), during (DC), and after (AC). Organizations experimented with different workforce models for decades. Some industries did a better job than the others. While large corporates preferred a centralized model, tying their employees to formal physical places called offices and managing productivity using a time and attendance model.

Commenting on this outdated industrial-era model, LC Singh, Executive Vice Chairman at Nihilent insists that it is past time for corporates to adopt a workforce model that moves work to the worker, and not the worker to the work. He recalls an experiment that AT&T ran way back in 1994, when the entire workforce, from the CEO to the phone operator, stayed home. “Not because they were sick or on strike, but wanted to test out telecommuting,” says LC Singh. While many more corporates experimented with alternative workforce models, these could not break into the mainstream. Echoing similar sentiments, Minoo Dastur, CEO at Nihilent says, “In spite of the advancements, the fact is that we could not move beyond open-plan spaces and hot seats.”

The medium and small businesses, on the other hand, embraced alternative workplace models with both hands. Not for its novelty, but for sound business reasons.

Consider the case of SOHO, the small office home office model. This interesting culture gained traction when the internet exploded, enabling a flurry of entrepreneurial ventures, brimming with the ambition to become the next unicorn. Many sub-cultures branched out of this, with the most notable being ‘hoteling’, whereby shared workspaces which are furnished, equipped, and supported with typical office services, are made available for entrepreneurs, for hours, days, weeks, or months, at very reasonable rates. Its popularity is vouched by the fact that today we have many globally established businesses, such as Regus and WeWork, and hundreds of local businesses in every big city, offering shared workspaces.

The pandemic came in unannounced, ushering cataclysmic changes to the concept of workplaces. For businesses who fell within the classification of essential services, their employees continued to work from their offices, at much lower levels of capacity. Employees from other sectors found ways to adapt and continue to support their companies by working from home. Organizations quickly put out policies and guidelines, equipped their employees with laptops, rolled out productivity tools that enabled remote collaboration, and topped it all up with counseling and wellness support. Luckily this time, the digital infrastructure we built over the last two decades made it possible for us to keep the lights on for our organizations, even in such trying circumstances. Even organizations that never considered such possibilities had to take the plunge, and bravely they did.

As we emerge on the other side of the great lockdown, the pendulum of priority has swung from ‘saving lives’ in favor of ‘saving livelihoods’. Economies are experimenting with different reopening strategies and plowing back the learnings from each other to fine-tune their tactics. We are now richer in terms of our collective experiences and bolder in terms of our will. While we should expect hiccups, a back-to-normal is very imminent. Importantly for organizations, they will have to quickly fish the recent experiences from the disposal, wipe it clean, repaint the ugly parts, and recycle it for more than what it is worth.

SPECTRUM OF ALTERNATIVE WORKPLACES

The scope of alternative workspaces is quite wide. For some it may be about adopting working hour shifts or carefully planning travel schedules, thereby enable multiple people to share the same desk and equipment. Moving to an open-plan or free-address hot-seat model can be another, whereby workers are assigned to one facility but within the facility, they are free to move around. Satellite offices can be another alternative workplace model whereby organizations can break up larger centralized offices into smaller decentralized ones that are located closer to the customers or employees. Adopting shared office spaces, that are managed by third parties and rented on a need basis for hours, weeks or months, can be another potential workplace model.

“The digital economy is gloating over the rich dividends from embracing mobility, but when it comes to people, I reckon it will be the antithesis which will reign supreme, a lack of mobility,” says Minoo Dastur. Considering the amount of time, effort, and resources that get wasted by the employees in traveling to and from infrastructure and security arrangements, including full technical backup at the nearest corporate facility. While the concept of telecommuting, which’s been lingering around for decades, has lost many skeptics and won many admirers during the course of the lockdown, the implications from its permanent adoption are yet to be adequately understood.

Top-heavy organization models are getting outdated, the pandemic will only accelerate its fateful eventuality. Speaking about creative workplaces for the future, LC Singh says we will have to limit our over-reliance on captive in-house talent. He points out Nihilent’s acquisition, of Hypercollective, an advertising agency founded by ad-guru KV Sridhar, and says it’s a proven business model now, one built around e-lancers who provide the precise skills needed by projects.

RECONFIGURING WORKPLACES FOR THE NEW NORMAL

The pandemic gave organizations more than a gentle nudge which they cannot ignore. They discovered that there are alternative workplace models that can get the job done, more efficiently and economically. “Our first priority was ensuring the health and safety of employees”, recollects Cdr Das Mallya, Group Vice President, Human Capital at Nihilent, about the initial days of the pandemic. Now that Nihilent is getting into a ‘reopen’ mindset, Mallya says, “Our focus has shifted to identifying new habits for permanency and reinforcing them through creative incentivization.”

For industrial organizations, ones that require face-to-face interactions or ones that are rooted in specific hardware installations, the options will be limited. But for informational organizations, those with a commitment to adopting digital technology for improving performance, the options are unlimited. They can explore alternative workplace arrangements such as open plans, satellite office, shared office, virtual office, and home offices amongst many others, but clearly work from anywhere is going to be a widely accepted theme across industries.

This journey, however, should start with the adoption of a detailed thoughtfully crafted blueprint along with an implementation plan. In this context, I would like to highlight 10 important factors that organizations should consider as we make our design choices on the work arrangements for the future and realize its full potential.

  • Unbundling of jobs : Digital technologies are allowing organizations to break down jobs into many distinct tasks that can be accomplished separately and recombined to achieve the desired result. We have seen a mushrooming of labor platforms facilitating a marketplace where tasks can be bought and sold. On these platforms, employers can set the price they are willing to pay for certain tasks and workers can bid for them at their convenience and leisure. These developments are impacting how a person is compensated for work, moving away from salary to hourly rates for piecework. Workers might even hold multiple jobs at the same time, as the emphasis will be increasingly placed on results and not the effort. We expect this trend of unbundling to accelerate into the future, aided by the need to remain isolated from one another in the name of social distancing, and organizations need to keep their fixed costs as low as possible.

  • Drive responsiveness: Should focus on stabilizing and reviving the business, including but not limited to designing cost containment strategies, re-budgeting for capital expenditures given the revision of revenue targets for the year, assessment and planning for business continuity given the shortages for critical electronic parts and skilled manpower supply, along with focussed strategies to drive revenue assurance initiatives.

  • Return to craftsmanship :With the rise of bots of all kinds, organizations are today able to automate most of the repetitive tasks, including qualified ones. This has resulted in a return to craftsmanship. People, to find a meaningful role, are now required to acquire specialized skills that bring creativity and problem solving to work. These specialists, due to the nature of work they undertake, crave autonomy and flexibility and reject hierarchy and bureaucracy. This movement has permeated into all industries. For instance, consider the ‘software craftsmanship manifesto’ which encourages software developers to raise the bar, by organizing into a tight-knit community that treats work as a craft, leveraging partnerships, and steadily adding value. Clearly, craftsmanship is set to dominate the future of work.

  • Digital collaboration tools : We have come a long way when it comes to digitizing work and workplaces. No employee today is tied to their desks. They don’t have to place a name tag on their desks or login. And they can freely move around during the day. Anyone can locate us because we are moving with our laptop, tablet, and smartphone with us. Over the last few years, we have also learned to live with distributed offices, thanks to audio and video conferencing facilities. Social media has further shown us that we can be oceans apart physically yet stay tightly knit as a community. And over the last few months, digital tools like Microsoft Teams have occupied the heart of communication and collaboration in the life of an average corporate employee. Clearly, we can’t be any more prepared to make the transition to a home office or a hybrid model, that keeps physical distancing as its central characteristic.

  • Social connect and belongingness : Aristotle noted long back that ‘man is by nature a social animal’. It is in our nature to share information and thrive as a community. However, in the digital world, we confuse between connection and connectivity. Connectivity is about logging onto a digital network, whereas connection is about being fully present in the company of others. Isolation is taking its toll on the mental wellbeing of many employees. Progressive organizations are responding creatively by regularly engaging employees in activities such as online office games, virtual coffee breaks, Virtual meetings over lunch, team health challenges, and many others. This is no doubt about struggles in the initial stages, but eventually, employees will find their rhythm and things will start falling in place. Going into the future, organizations will have to address both aspects but should excel in building connections, with employees, with clients, and with wider stakeholders, when they make choices around alternative workplaces.

  • New work practices : We have come a long way, especially for IT companies, from mainframes to client-server to web and mobile apps, from onsite to offshore models, from waterfall to agile to DevOps, from libraries to APIs to microservices. As these emerge, organizations must prepare to adopt the new trends and practices and exploit maximum benefits from them.

    We will have to skill and reskill train our employees on these models and inadequate numbers. Requirements around integrity, IT security, data security, and privacy rules will further complicate the mix. For a generation of managers, who had their teams in front of their eyes, and therefore had visibility to the efforts put in by their teams, a transition to a model that only looks at the results won’t be easy. Ingrained behaviors and practical hurdles will be hard to overcome. The change to our ways of working should be consciously designed, and ably supplemented with a revision to the incentives and rewards policies.

  • Continuing education for employee reskilling : Human capital is a competitive advantage in many industries. As technology starts powering the engine of progress, there is growing concern about job displacement and talent shortages challenges that organizations will have to face. We already see employment getting impacted by intelligent systems and automation, one industry after another. We also see the emergence of new jobs, driven by technological integration and change in business models. We believe a proactive and strategic approach to managing upskilling and reskilling is the need of the day, for organizations to mitigate against both job losses and talent shortages. Apart from coaching, mentorship, and on-the-job training, sponsored continuing education should form a key component as we make our choices around a new workplace configuration for the future. From an employee’s perspective, we will see a distinct shift from a push to a pull model of training.

  • Work-life balance : Rightly so, organizations will be led by the potential to improve operating efficiencies and employees by flexibility and convenience. But delivering on a work-life balance will be a matter of mutual trust. While some may enjoy the benefits in terms of work time flexibility, others might feel that is held tight using an electronic leash. As discussed earlier, managers will have to learn to manage by deliverables and not efforts. On another side of the same coin, employees will have to learn to earn their salaries linked to the production of the actual deliverable, and not effort. There will be additional issues, for employees from cities who live in small apartments, most won’t have the swing space to put up a chair and a desk without sacrificing on living space. And for a family person, there are many more distractions at home, and this becomes acute for women. However, recent studies indicate a win-win proposition, with employers benefiting from higher levels of productivity and employees in terms of overall satisfaction. Data also indicates that remote working options can be a good way to retain talent, as employee turnover was found to reduce by over 50%.

  • Dilution of employee loyalty : Rightly so, organizations will be led by the potential to improve operating efficiencies and employees by flexibility and convenience. But delivering on a work-life balance will be a matter of mutual trust. While some may enjoy the benefits in terms of work time flexibility, others might feel that is held tight using an electronic leash. As discussed earlier, managers will have to learn to manage by deliverables and not efforts. On another side of the same coin, employees will have to learn to earn their salaries linked to the production of the actual deliverable, and not effort. There will be additional issues, for employees from cities who live in small apartments, most won’t have the swing space to put up a chair and a desk without sacrificing on living space. And for a family person, there are many more distractions at home, and this becomes acute for women. However, recent studies indicate a win-win proposition, with employers benefiting from higher levels of productivity and employees in terms of overall satisfaction. Data also indicates that remote working options can be a good way to retain talent, as employee turnover was found to reduce by over 50%.In a gig economy, due to its very construct, jobs will get unbundled and will no longer come with the promise of security. They will instead come with piecework scope, short-term contracts, and fewer benefits. Because workers will be offered low-paid, no-security jobs, they will become less loyal. This will eventually result in an erosion of the social contract between employers and employees. Human Capital departments are finding it difficult to recruit employees without having an employer brand with a strong pull. They are finding it even more difficult to retain the ones they hire, as the employees, just like bargain-hunting consumers, are always on the lookout for better opportunities.

  • Financial motivations : If one-half of the motivation for organizations to adopt alternative workplaces is employee productivity, then the other half is cost reduction. By eliminating offices people don’t need, consolidating others, and reducing related overhead costs, organizations can free up their cashflows, for instance, AT&T claim they got a 30% improvement. But to accrue these cost savings, investments in technology will have to be made. Managers will have to be prudent in ensuring we save more than what we spend. Savings will not be linear and will eventually hit a plateau in terms of lower fixed costs, higher productivity, and greater employee and customer satisfaction. Experience tells us that if we fail to onboard a critical mass of business functions and their teams into the alternative workforce model, then the benefits may be too marginal in comparison to the investments and effort required and will cease to be a viable strategy and ultimately fail.

  • Medical emergency preparedness : While every organization already adheres to occupational health and safety standards mandated by the government, the future will call for stricter requirements. They must ensure social distancing within offices, encourage employees to handwash frequently, schedule housekeeping to undertake regular, frequent, and periodic cleaning, and ensure sick employees strictly stay home. Employees should be encouraged to wear personal protective equipment where social distancing may not be feasible or not effective. Employees, who are sick, should be quickly isolated and follow government guidelines on the medical response, contact tracing, and deep cleaning. Above all, organizations must provide workplace hazard education about coronavirus and how to prevent its transmission, in the language best understood by the employee.

    “For a life experience, what would you prefer, to catch all the on-field action remotely on a television screen, or in the stadium in the company of passionate boisterous fanatic supporters?” asks Minoo Dastur, with a twinkle in his eyes. Clearly, there are no easy answers in our increasingly bipolar world. It will be unrealistic to expect a consensus on any one single workforce model that will tick all the boxes for all stakeholder groups. Rather the future will call for a blended configuration, whose constituents, composition, and weights will be determined by each organization, in a way that balances the individual and corporate interests.

Like it or not, we live in interesting times.

A business consultant with an eye and patience for details, Ashwini works with organizations large and small and prefers to know their challenges from the inside. She is building her expertise in behavioral science, especially in its application in interaction-experience design, in the form of thoughtfully crafted digital nudges.