Article: Building social capital in a post-pandemic work environment

Performance Management

Building social capital in a post-pandemic work environment

The shift to at-home and hybrid work has created a surfeit of time, and of choice about where and when to work.
Building social capital in a post-pandemic work environment

The 2020 decade will perhaps be defined by Covid-19 and its impact on our businesses, our communities, and our lives. A hyper-connected world moved online in a few weeks, video conferences replacing the physical experience of offices and unfettered travel. For the IT and ITES sector, in particular, the past two years have proved a watershed moment.

An industry servicing clients from best-of-breed delivery hubs with the highest levels of workplace experience, connectivity, business continuity, and risk management, found itself mothballing those investments to instead service clients now from millions of new sites – the homes of all its employees. That we find ourselves here today, with a large majority of servicing continuing from home, underscores the success of Team India in meeting this challenge. Indian power and communication infrastructure remained resilient to this shift in work pattern, government policies demonstrated prudent flexibility, and management teams and employees moved to an untested work model with entrepreneurial zeal and speed. So it proved that whilst the world shut down, the Indian ITES industry won away market share.

An industry redefining social capital

Wikipedia defines social capital as "the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively". In our knowledge-capital and people-intensive industry, this is perhaps the most important aspect of business. Growing rapidly whilst simultaneously moving to a new and unproven distributed delivery model has unsurprisingly led to innovations in how firms develop social capital.

The first pillar of this redesign arises from the industry’s proactive approach to employee welfare. From the very early days of the pandemic, the best companies started welfare initiatives such as programs to check in on employee well-being, regular webinars to help manage physical and mental stress of a virtual workplace, and drives to ensure no one was without food and other essentials during isolation periods. In India’s deadly second wave, some firms initiated Covid-19 insurance schemes, professional counselling, free medical consultation services, and 24*7 helplines to assist with hospital beds and oxygen. The industry was an adept partner to the Indian government’s vaccination drive, taking it upon itself to vaccinate employees as soon as possible. I believe this redefined the employer-employee relationship in a radically positive way, knitting a tighter community than ever before.

As this novel work paradigm has become more of a “new -normal”, new work methods have evolved, defining perhaps the second pillar of the new social capital. Over the past two years, firms such as ours have added tens of thousands of employees, all of them onboarded virtually. For several firms today, the majority of the workforce has never worked at their employer’s office. To manage this transition, firms have added millions of hours of training that are administered online and then invigilated using new software tools.

Innovative procedures such as video check-ins and checkouts have replaced gate swipes and team huddles, and online tools have replaced other workplace interactions. AI / ML tools have allowed employers to proactively identify and address stress and anxiety. Office get-togethers have been replaced by Zoom happy hours. As some return to work has commenced, firms have prioritised offices for critical and sensitive work, and new hire training and assimilation. When your view of your firm is through the narrow window of your 2D computer screen, such investments in connection and culturisation take on critical importance and determine the success or failure of developing social capital.

Finally, with great freedom comes great responsibility (to paraphrase somewhat liberally). The shift to at-home and hybrid work has created a surfeit of time, and of choice about where and when to work. The loss of physical oversight and controls has potentially increased the risk of mistakes and made the industry more vulnerable to malicious attacks, the latter of particular focus given recent geopolitical events. Given this, perhaps the third pillar of social capital redefinition is an implicit acceptance of greater virtual surveillance and control in return for these new freedoms. In this area, the industry has been aided by its prescient investments in relevant technologies, together with the maturing of platforms targeting a distributed work model. In addition to greater use of video, employees have accepted always-on cameras, facial and activity recognition software, and predictive applications to proactively manage risk.

Social capital in a technologically –accelerated future

The limited liability company is a very recent addition to the shelf-full of social structures that humans have experimented with. In all previous instances of changes to social structures, technology has played a spinal role. This time, technology is “flattening” the traditional organisation with software tools empowering instant and multi-way communication across an organisation, unhindered by geography and titles, changing how social capital is formed. I remain convinced that we will look back to the early events of this decade as the touchstone of major changes to how we organise for work and perhaps a purposeful life in the future. But I remain more convinced that some tenets of being human won’t change - perhaps the most important of these being our need for physical connection. Our industry, always an adept leader in everything technology, would do well to remember this.

 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and People Matters does not necessarily subscribe to them.

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Topics: Performance Management, Strategic HR, #GuestArticle, #GreatPowerShift

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