Having anticipated (and, hopefully, resolved) the challenges of remote working while people were still euphoric with its novelty, I thought there was no more to be said on the subject. 1 Even so, I gave HR practitioners fair notice, a year later, to institutionalize flexibility into performance-enhancing choice processes before the tide of CEO thinking lost its new-found affection for it. 2 The predicted reactions followed within months, even from corporates which had most of their workforces tucked heretofore within offices. Given that even the possibility of Work From Home (WFH) was available only to a tiny fraction of India’s working population – the numbers from my back-of-the-envelope calculation spoke loud and clear – I felt I had dedicated sufficient column centimetres to a subject applicable to such a minuscule proportion of people. As I should have realized long earlier, numbers never tell the whole story.
Like much else in India, the workforce in the formal commercial sector follows an unspoken varna-cular, Under the benign eye of the CEOvartin – and sharing the same air-conditioned comfort – are the twice-born (or dvija) employees who can have an easy rebirth in a remote location. For the vast majority of the population working in manufacturing, factory support or field sales and service, no WFH option is possible. The precariat, of course, does not even enter into the reckoning. Small as their relative numbers may be, the din the dvija create is disproportionately high. Consequently, it is the rare CEOvartin or HR department that can turn a deaf ear to their clamour for WFH, especially when it is accompanied by the patter of feet following the piper playing the great resignation tune.
The two columns mentioned above dealt with the need to have substantive physical proximity for the larger part of the workforce and how to make productivity and happiness gains from flexibility. However, as the WFH wave reaches Full Range organisations (FROs) that have many jobs which just can’t be placed off-site, we need to understand the special problems these organisations face if they have to retain Policy Coherence (PC). WFH is just a recent example of the frequent challenges HR faces when FROs need to meet differential policy demands while retaining PC. Before finding solutions to such challenges, we first need to develop a shared understanding of the purpose policies serve, particularly in the people domain. Readers who have spent a lifetime designing effective and elegant laws for governing organisations’ inner workings can skip Policy 101 contained in the next section.
The Point of Policies
Sound People Policies have three E-characteristics (for once 'e' is not the ubiquitous 'electronic') that are essential for them to work. Since this is P101, perhaps it’s best to start with a very basic example. Let’s assume you are formulating policy for an enterprise that (surprise, surprise) requires people to be available for work. Here’s how the three 'E's might take shape.
Enablement of an organisational goal is the prime justification for having a policy in the first place. The actual targets, working instructions or daily directives are rarely contained in the policy. At the other end, policies exclude the near-permanent core values of the organisation, though they certainly need to be consistent with these values and, in certain cases, exemplify or facilitate them. In our simple example, if people have to contribute to their groups’ activities throughout the workweek, there may be a policy specifying the times of the day when everyone must be simultaneously present (we leave the virtual or physical thorn for later plucking). Even a simple policy like this may have incentives and penalties built in to encourage conformity. For instance, more than a certain number of late clocking-ins might cost a day of paid leave.
Efficiency is the core reason for having the policy in the first place. After all one could, in our example, achieve the same outcome with the supervisor telling each team member when to turn up the next day. Apart from the obvious toll on everybody’s time, whatever gains the customization might bring would be more than lost by the engagement of conscious recollection in place of habit and the effort needed for getting multiple people available for a common activity. Technology, however, is making it increasingly possible to stretch the tailormade envelope without some of its attendant costs. The aforesaid column on flexibility deals with precisely this means of gaining both performance and employee satisfaction. One critical requirement, of course, is that the possibility of choice should be available to everyone. And this brings us to our third policy prerequisite.
Equity, in the context of policies, means that they should be applicable to all employees and, if they aren’t, the reasons for the discrimination should be linked to the logic of work or be otherwise obvious to everyone. Thus, going back one last time to our example, even if everyone doesn't need the same hours for delivering on their goals, it would be the rare organisation that can pull off intra-team differences in working hours on a sustained basis. People may, for a time, shut their eyes to Policy Inequity / Incoherence (PI) caused by poor design, differential application or varying access to redress. In the medium to long term, however, lack of PC can cost organisations their entitlement to be considered fair. Permitting fissures to develop beyond a point between the rights, responsibilities and consequences applicable to various categories of people can lead to irreversible alienation and rupture. In the rest of this column, we shall examine the problems caused by PI and how they may be ameliorated to restore PC.
The GINI Escapes
PI can corrode the team working, the sense of belonging and the conviction of fairness that are essential for building high-performance organisations. The speed and seriousness of the corrosion can be moderated greatly, however, when people have been conditioned to certain disparities. Using this criterion we can distinguish three types of PI, in increasing order of corrosiveness. As shorthand for PIs within organisations, we shall borrow from the index named after Corrado Gini and used by economists all over the world to measure income and wealth disparities. To compensate for the overly prosaic example employed in the previous section, we’ll range further afield in this one.
GiniVer: We start with the vertical distinctions between levels. One would be blind not to notice these policy differences have existed historically. In India, particularly, they go back at least to the colonial origins of our corporate management structures (see the section on 'Chains of command – and servitude' in a previous column)3. Matters are not helped by our traditional need and support for 'sultanism'4. But there are limits and they are becoming progressively lower with each new generation of employees. To take an example of inequalities that were perceived to be unjustified but which went unchallenged for a long time before they were overthrown, any one of the great revolutions in recent centuries will do. "France near the end of the ancien régime was characterized by high levels of wealth and income disparities... The nobility owned a quarter of the land but was exempt from the main direct tax… Moreover, in as much as richer bourgeois were able to escape taxation by purchasing titles and offices, the actual burden fell largely on smaller farmers and workers."5 As in France then, so in today’s corporates: simply because people have put up with disparities is no guarantee that they’ll continue to do so indefinitely.
GiniFar: Only slightly less acceptable than GiniVer is GiniFar – the (reasonable) hope that what’s not seen by people won’t burn them. This is the strategy adopted by MNCs – especially the ones that are in India to exploit its wage arbitrage. Internal media and communications across country borders in these corporates are usually sanitised (through self-censorship) of references to the benefits and perks available in the mother country. Expats often are placed as heads of subsidiaries not similarly blessed and cocooned in country-of-origin compensation (and very generous benefits) to provide a choke point for requests seeking greater inter-country parity. organisations also attempt to draw an opaque veil between, say, manufacturing locations and their HQ within India but these are decreasingly successful as social media and e-communication rip such veils to shreds in no time. Rare is the case when inter-country differentials can be fully bridged but disparities brought on by, say, exploiting loopholes in local laws (e.g paying lower wages to the precariat in India while coughing up a flexibility premium for short-term work in the mother country) are unconscionable.
GiniSee: Given the ubiquity of e-communication today, the most heart-burning differentials do not have to be within direct line of sight. Moreover, the camouflages provided by tradition and distance (that rendered disparities unobjectionable) are increasingly being exposed. Most directly, of course, groups that heretofore saw themselves treated on par with some others, suddenly find themselves disadvantaged on a parameter they consider important. This, incidentally, is the risk thoughtless hybridization runs when WFH is permitted to departments (that were already considered somewhat spoiled) where it is possible and denied elsewhere e.g. in manufacturing. While organisations with mainly office-based activity may choose to ignore this concern, it will cause immense heartburn in FROs unless they affect some measures to regain PC. It is to these remedies that we now turn.
Containing PI Problems
Preventing or mitigating PI doesn’t require the brains of an Einstein. It can, however, demand the daring of a Daniel, especially when confronted by a lionlike Business Partner who considers PC concerns typical HR Wokeism.
By far the best way to beat PI proponents is to head them off at the pass i.e. before the inequality becomes entrenched. To take as an example the WFH concession that is still causing heartburn in some firms, the glide path to normalcy should have been triggered (and, indeed, was in most sensible FROs) as soon as the peak crisis was passed. An earlier column had pointed out the necessity of doing so even for organisations without PI problems. 6 HR’s eagerness to respond to its Business Partners (with their local priorities and pressures) should not lead to PI. Having policies that are consistent and defendable to all employee categories (PC, in short) is important to people and, hence, becomes a key HR deliverable.7
Of course, we are not dealing only with the relatively cut-and-dried matter of WFH. There could be policies where job and function demands leave us no options but to differentiate. Given sufficient planning leeway, it is worth examining whether the geographic isolation of conspicuous PI can be a worthwhile palliative. As we have noted, GiniFar is easier to manage than GiniSee. Locational differentiation also permits non-comparable facilities to be provided in places handicapped by PI and brings us to our third remedy.
Once we are dealing with location-wide PI we can have several degrees of freedom to plan compensatory (though, preferably non-fungible) benefits. Quite often, the disadvantaged locations are factory sites which have concentrations of employees in relatively small areas. Apart from schools and hospitals, which have tended to lose their charm in recent years, one has still-cherished benefits like clubs, adult education centres and company transport. This is obviously only a game the big FRO boys can play.
The Restaurant at the End of the (Policy) Universe
The solutions we have examined so far are mitigatory. Going forward, I believe it should be perfectly feasible to push the satisficing boundary of the last of the solutions (from the previous section) closer to optimality. In its conventionally deployed form, location-specific policies are handicapped because they are applied with a broad brush that cannot take cognizance of individual needs and colour preferences. Also, because they are delivered en masse, they cannot permit clubbing of benefit sacrifices in favour of a spectacular (from an individual’s viewpoint) replacement. Seems a bit abstract? Let’s flesh it out.
Technology is now available both to glean (unobtrusively but with permission) benefit preferences appropriate for each personality type and to permit seamless, dynamic choices to be made from a palette that spans a range of Gs. A more detailed explanation of how this might be done as well as of the 5G framework is contained in a previous column. 8 What is worth emphasizing in our current context is the flexibility to combine benefit sacrifices that are forced (e.g. WFH unavailability for factory-based employees) as well as voluntary (e.g. non-use of sports facilities) into individually meaningful choices that are impossible to provide uniformly to all employees. Indicatively (though by no means exhaustively) these could include course-fee paid sabbaticals, mentoring from generally admired leaders, extra medical coverage for dependents with special needs or extended family and overseas scholarships for extra-talented children of employees. This is far beyond a cafeteria approach. It is an entire restaurant with a galaxy of choices – but with the same menu card for all. Once N=1, the bit depth of the policy palette is limited only by the imagination of HR while retaining a high degree of PC.
Some people (and they are not only limited to HR or to corporate settings) revel in their power to be arbitrary, inflexible or even brutal in the policies they devise. They are likely to dismiss any elaborate effort to maximize employee happiness while retaining PC. I can imagine such Policy Dictators (PoDi for short) ranting: "All this trouble for the sake of PC? I have no time for all this restaurant tamasha. If people can’t avail of a facility because of the nature of their job, just too bad. I recall when …".
Employees who get mud PIs naturally view PoDis rather dyspeptically. An employee aggrieved by Hybrid WFH policies (not available to her) wrote: "Like all PoDi policies it looked as if it had been not so much designed as congealed… In fact to see anything much uglier than a PoDi policy you would have to go inside and look at a PoDi. If you are wise, however, this is precisely what you will avoid doing because the average PoDi will not think twice before doing something so pointlessly hideous to you that you will wish you had never been born – or (if you are a clearer-minded thinker) that the PoDi had never been born. In fact, the average PoDi probably wouldn't even think once. They are simple-minded, thick-willed, slug-brained creatures, and thinking is not really something they are cut out for… The fairest thing you can say about them, then, is that they know what they like, and what they like generally involves hurting people and, wherever possible, getting very angry." 9 Ok, so I blasphemed by tinkering with Galactic scripture and replacing Volgons with PoDis. Before you sue me, however, you have to admit irritated employees use even less Lok Sabha language than Adams’ when they are upset with PI.
1) Visty Banaji, 'Working from Home is NOT a piece of cake', People Matters, 25 January 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/working-from-home-is-not-a-piece-of-cake-282475).
2) Visty Banaji, Big Data: Bigger performance – biggest delight, People Matters, 14 January 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/big-data-bigger-performance-biggest-delight-32248).
3) Visty Banaji, Twinkle, twinkle, leadership star, Can you unlearn what you are?, People Matters, 15 July 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/leadership/twinkle-twinkle-leadership-star-can-you-unlearn-what-you-are-30002).
4) Visty Banaji, Music and management, People Matters, 5 February 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/music-and-management-24574).
5) Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Princeton University Press, 2018.
6) Visty Banaji, 'Working from Home is NOT a piece of cake', People Matters, 25 January 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/working-from-home-is-not-a-piece-of-cake-282475).
7) Visty Banaji, Partner people first, People Matters, 21 October 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/partner-people-first-27348).
8) Visty Banaji, Big Data: Bigger performance – biggest delight, People Matters, 14 January 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/big-data-bigger-performance-biggest-delight-32248).
9) Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Pan Books, 2016.