The global spread of COVID-19 and resultant nationwide lockdowns in various countries over prolonged periods brought drastic changes in the way people live and work. Adhering to the norms of social distancing and to minimise the spread of coronavirus, several companies in India declared work from home early March onwards. While technology and IT companies were well-equipped to provide the required infrastructure to their workforce, a report by Gartner revealed that 54% of the Indian firms lacked the technology and resources to ensure smooth employee communication and business continuity, most of them SMBs and non-IT companies. A productive remote work heavily depends on self-regulation, organizational skills and the ability to manage tasks virtually – something not everyone is used to.
Companies and employees showed great resilience shown in light of the pandemic and tried to ensure business continuity despite a complete lack of physical connect between teams. It became essential for organizations to ensure that their employees remained productive, by helping them maintain not just physical but also mental well-being. To corroborate, the human resources teams at organizations introduced multiple initiatives over the last two months – ranging from virtual meditation and counselling sessions, to online learning modules, and informal social connect sessions. They have also ensured that there is regular communication between the team members, as well as the employees and the senior leadership, via frequent town halls and video conferencing sessions. At a time of isolation and stress in lifestyle changes such efforts by employers have supported employees and urged them to continue to ‘keep calm and carry on’.
While regularization of businesses has started, given the magnitude of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had, it is bound to redefine the workplace norms across industries even after the risk of infection fades. So, what will our new ‘normal’ workplace be like?
- Increased flexibility in work-from-home policies: Most organizations provide their employees the option to work from home. However, the number of work-from-home days allowed depended on the nature of work, and it was a less preferred option. Given that employees have continued to coordinate with each other and work smoothly from their homes for more than two months now, companies are more likely to allow more work from home, to larger teams than before. Even though local governments have relaxed the norms of getting back to work, organizations are still more focused on the well-being of their employees, and therefore are offering their employees to continue working from home in the upcoming months, at least until the coronavirus situation subsides.
- Greater focus on employee mental health: As a given, every employer has health insurance policies to ensure employee safety, which often included the employee’s family as well. However, this pandemic situation has generated and spread awareness about the significance of maintaining employees’ mental well-being in addition to physical safety. organizations are looking at ways to reduce screen time for their employees to avoid exhaustion and burnout by exploring options such as mandatory break time, fewer work hours and reduced working days. Many organizations have also introduced helplines and employee assistance programmes which provide psychological, financial and/or legal counselling for employees as well as their families. This trend will continue even after the pandemic subsides.
- Increased adoption of technology to reduce in-person meetings and business travel: Throughout the lockdown period, employees have stayed connected using various communication tools – video conferencing platforms being one of the most common ones. This has significantly helped in the smooth functioning of the business – in fact, some companies found that less time was wasted during time-bound video conferences than in person meetings - and now, companies are more likely to invest in online and video conferencing subscriptions and equipment, as this mode of communication is convenient and time-saving. Frequent business travel is also likely to be replaced with video meetings, as organizations would like to ensure the safety of their employees as well as clients.
- Increased diversity at the virtual workplace: One of the most important changes that working from home has brought, is the change in the perspective of employers that their employees need to be physically present in the office premises to work. The post-COVID era will offer an opportunity to those women and men, who are willing to work but are unable to do so because of time or geographic constraints. Now that the effectiveness of the work from home model has been established, more organizations will be open to offering jobs to these women and men, and help them build their careers.
- The new workplace: The office space will look and operate very differently, once employees start returning to work. Regular sanitisation of the office space, instalment of health monitoring sensors, changes in the accessibility of common areas such as the cafeteria, controlled movement and access, with only limited number of employees will be allowed inside the office or at a common room at a time, will become the new normal. Organizations are also drawing up plans to incorporate technologies which will help employees function with minimum contact in offices - for example, voice-activated technologies will enable employees to control equipments in the meeting rooms.
It is essential for organizations and employees to adapt to this new way of working. While it is important for employees to continue to work from home, it is also a must for them to start thinking of new ways to keep up individual productivity while avoiding burnout, manage work-life balance and maintain business continuity. organizations, on the other hand, must focus on upskilling of its employees. Upskilling will not just be required for technical skills, but also softer skills such as time management, collaboration and teamwork, leadership traits, building team spirit and adaptability to evolving working ways.