CEO Maruti Anandnath (no, not Marie Antoinette) looked contentedly at the sea through the picture window in his air-conditioned study at home while cutting a large slice of Mille-feuille. He loved the life of enforced home working that COVID-19 had brought in its wake, not least because he could get up an hour later and save on the Mercedes-ensconced bother of his daily commute. He wished he could operate from his home-cocoon forever. But that would just not be possible. Or would it? He looked across at the pewter plaque on his table. It said: 'The difference between impossible and possible lies in a man’s determination'. Maruti called his CHRO and asked what he thought of working from home on a permanent basis. The CHRO hadn’t reached his position without being able to recognize when an “ask” was a “tell”. He glanced for a moment at the coffee mug which the CEO had given to his CXOs at the last top management retreat. Inscribed on it, in large bold letters, was: “I only want people around me who can do the impossible”. His support for the permanent work from home idea was unequivocal and total. He went around making it clear to his colleagues and the HR team that “Stay Home – Improve Productivity” (HR loves these acronym games) needed immediate proselytization. The rest, they say, is history. You, smart readers, realized from the start that this is a fictional account. Which self-respecting CEO would slice his own Mille-feuille?
Needless to say, the reactions from the less luxuriously housed employees of the (purely fictional – really?) firm described here were far less thrilled about the cyber-wave that had struck their CEO. Even if he (though certainly not his CHRO) can be excused for neglecting to take the interests of employees into account, he cannot get off so lightly for the lasting damage his decision will cause to the organization itself. Surely, I exaggerate. Haven’t we seen virtually every organization switch into virtual mode soon after the COVID-19 pandemic was called and, barring a few initial hiccups, all of them seem to have managed the transition perfectly satisfactorily?
It all seems to be working well
There are three reasons COVID-triggered remote working hasn’t surfaced the organizational issues Working At Home Permanently (WARP) will cause:
Pre-existing teams that had been formed and worked together while they were co-located had accumulated a stock of trust and ‘’common ground’’ between members. "If team members have a lot of shared past experience, have worked together before, share a common vocabulary, etc. it is easier for them to work through remote media without a lot of clarification."1 This fund will deplete over time and particularly as fresh members are added or new teams need to be formed.
Very likely, many of the critical decisions and directions that required close, intensive interaction (such as agreeing on a strategic plan for the business) may have already been in place when people stopped going to their offices. Such "tightly coupled work has a number of ambiguities that must be worked out among the team members and lots of interaction and negotiation. It is very difficult to do tightly coupled work at a distance."1 At each level in the organization, tightly coupled activity is required, at least periodically. Even people engaged in the most routinized, loosely coupled tasks need to step into a tightly coupled mode when they seek to make improvements (e.g. Kaizen). For a limited period, such interactions can be put off without significant damage. However, these processes cannot be indefinitely deferred without degrading organizational capabilities and, when they are attempted through remote interactions, the quality of the decisions is likely to be sub-optimal.
The clincher for the WARProtagonists seems to be that productivity has been maintained or even enhanced under the new work conditions. Most of these claims turn out to be premised on the common confusion between output (the volume of goods or services delivered) and productivity (the efficiency i.e. the ratio of output to input). Under conditions of extreme job insecurity (which the economic stress of the pandemic has brought in its wake) it is not surprising that many employees have started putting in prodigiously higher effort, usually clocking work hours far in excess of their door to door absence in earlier times. Even abroad,"… research suggests the working week has stretched by as much as four more hours"2 and I have no doubt the figure is far higher among insecure Indians. This can hardly be a sustainable way of working as employees and company reputations start burning out under the stress.
They may not realize it but companies switching to WARP mode are running on battery power. When it drains beyond recovery, both organizations and people can show a steep fall in effectiveness and even sustain lasting damage.
The problems for organizations
Many glib conclusions have been drawn about how new technologies (particularly video interactions) have dug the grave of distance as an impediment to work effectiveness. Several behavioral scientists "believe differently. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of distance’s death are greatly exaggerated. Even with all our emerging information and communications technologies, distance... affect[s] how humans interact with each other. There are characteristics of face-to-face human interactions … that the emerging technologies are either pragmatically or logically incapable of replicating… Distance is not only alive and well, it is in several essential respects immortal. There are several broad reasons why distance will persist as an important element of human experience… Some distance work is possible today, but some aspects of it will remain difficult if not impossible to support even in the future."3 Let’s examine a few reasons why this should be so.
Effective working teams are the beating heart that pumps the lifeblood through a modern corporation. There are several ways in which distance and virtual working can clog this flow. At its core, each successful team is held together by trust. But 'trust needs touch'. Charles Handy went on to explain this memorable phrase: "...high tech has to be balanced by high touch to build high-trust organizations. Paradoxically, the more virtual an organization becomes, the more its people need to meet in person."4 Which is not to say trust can never be developed in a virtual setting. Just that the process is far longer, riskier and more likely to need resets to zero. Similarly, there are conceptual disjunctions caused by the fact that new members do not share the mental models5 which permit smooth team functioning and it is the rare corporation that invests in the training necessary to attain such congruence. One of the main reasons common mental maps take much longer to develop in virtual settings (compared to co-located teams) is the lack of non-formal meeting time – the pre- and post-meeting chats, the conversation around water coolers and coffee machines or the casual bumping into one another in corridors. In fact, these peripheral and seemingly non-productive interactions are what make the difference between teams that have been 'run-in' and those which will incur friction and heat damage (from as yet unmated parts) if they are revved up to heavy-duty performance. The lack of such ties also prevents incipient tensions from getting smoothed out and instead lets them burst out in full-scale conflicts that further impair team functioning.6 Another trigger for ill-feeling is rewards being administered in the old way – with an individual focus. In co-located teams, differential rewards are accepted because special contribution and diligence are plainly in sight as are gaming as well as anti-team and freeloading proclivities. The problem is aggravated because the employee is behind the veil of virtuality for the supervisor as well.
Conventional leadership skills and the usual amount of time and energy leaders devote to non-task matters are inadequate in a WARP environment. In fact, counterintuitive as it may appear, "as dispersion increases, the positive influence of transformational leadership on performance decreases, because members … increasingly doubt leaders’ transformational leadership behaviors (idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation) as being authentic."7 A cruder way to put it: Management By Walking Around can’t be substituted with Management By Squawking Around!
We have already pointed out that what passes for productivity is actually enhanced effort with its constantly accumulating potential for burnout and dissatisfaction. Even assuming real productively were rising, most reliable research is limited to cases where employees voluntarily chose to work from home. A typical finding shows "that when employees opted into WFH policies, their productivity increased by 13%... This suggests that people should probably determine for themselves the situation (home or office) that fits them best."8 A very different situation and recommendation than the forced WARPs being announced or contemplated.
The (bigger) problems for people
By now it should be apparent that mandatory WARP can lead to large and worsening declines in team and organizational performance. The impact on individuals is even worse and could grow to be devastating.
The human mind takes time and expends energy to adjust between each scenario it encounters. The home to work and work to home adjustment is a steep jump in the mind-set change demanded. The daily commute helps ease this transition either way. For people who are not blessed with separate studies at home and a bevy of domestic help to insulate them from other home demands, the work-home adjustments must be managed dozens of times a day with the attendant disorientation, stress and time loss in regaining trains of thought. It is not surprising then that engagement is down and illness is up. "A sobering 71% of workers at home have reported a new or worsening ailment since the outbreak."2
The problem is hugely exacerbated for women, whom much of Indian society will not let off the hook for home and child management or elder care, even though they may have at least as demanding WARP schedules as their husbands. Unfortunately, this is not true only in India9 though I suspect it may be much worse here. Those who are physically or technologically challenged have further mountains to climb: the latter problem being more aggravated for the older part of the workforce.
With most communications going via company servers the possibilities of surveillance (whether for productivity monitoring or even less kosher reasons) are infinite.10 I have yet to see beefed up data privacy guidelines from any corporate, clearly eschewing the data-mining or other use of the additional formal and informal interaction recordings that will now become available in huge quantities as a matter of course. What is even more threatening is what ever-smarter Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs can make of this huge windfall of people interaction information. Over the medium term, it can provide the quickest route to the annihilation of increasingly complex jobs. For this reason, if no other, thinking employees and fair employers should seek to revert to the status quo ante as soon as it is safe to do so.
In the midst of the strains and threats to which WARP exposes employees, I am less than thrilled to see some Gecko-ish proposals floating around. For the windfall gain of putting their mental health at risk, disrupting their home lives and, possibly, losing their jobs to AI, people are being asked to accept pay cuts by some employers while a bank even proposed "that remote workers should pay a tax for the privilege."11 I can only say those making such suggestions have their heads screwed on the wrong way and possibly attached to the wrong end of their torsos.
Engage computers, prepare for WARP
However many problems it may cause, working from home will be a part of our lives for the medium term. How do we minimize its adverse impact? There are five key action steps which need immediate attention by all organizations that have work from home underway. They will become even more vital for those that choose to go in for WARP, hopefully only in the very distant future.
- Socialization and cultural renewal: Both for forming teams initially and for renewing them periodically, intensive face-to-face sessions will be required. For reasons of safety, these will have to be conducted in spacious venues (there go the rent savings!) with specially reworked team-building processes. While it heads our logical sequence, this step can be deferred till the current stock of pre-Covid teams with their earlier bonding is still relatively intact. Obviously, such leeway would be unavailable to start-up businesses or sub-units.
- Leader and team training: All supervisors (and HR) will need to spend substantially more non-task time with individuals in the remote workforce. Apart from maintaining an emotional connect with each employee, they should able to give honest reassurances about job security and straight answers regarding compensation and other likely changes that cause worry. Besides they need to pick up new tech tools for remote work tracking and integrating synchronous as well as asynchronous communication methods. First time work-from-home employees have an even steeper learning curve to climb. This is one area where I see progressive organizations have already put training modules in place.
- Rich and on-tap non-task interactions: This is the tech substitute for the water cooler, the parking lot and all those other places where we got to know and like and tease our team-mates. Clearly, these need to be outside the confines of recording and other protocol checks.
- Designing and funding home work-stations/equipment: Special equipment and seating can make all the difference between a tolerable indefinite work-at-home experience and a maddening one. Here’s a chance to demonstrate that all those crores spent on Design Thinking workshops were not in vain.
- Data privacy and non-automation commitments: A lot more information from and about each individual will be available for recording and (mis)using. New data privacy policies will be needed to assure employees that it will not be used to monitor them more closely than heretofore and none of it will be analyzed with a view to job elimination.
Just as the "[h]orse was already in the heart of the Trojans"13, some CEOs have let the lure of real estate and other cost savings take over their hearts though they justify it with fancy terms like Business Continuity Planning. However, universalizing a solution meant for meeting the current crisis will only make us more fragile when we encounter the next.12 For instance, should the next black swan take the form of a cyber grey-out (whether because of a hostile attack or other catastrophes) and bandwidth has to be rationed for minimal essential use, none will be available for video connectivity and other rich media, especially to and from individual homes. If, by then, we have made it impractical for people to physically assemble for work, we shall find ourselves truly oar-less in a sewer pond.
- Judith S Olson and Gary M Olson, Bridging Distance: Empirical Studies of Distributed Teams, Chapter 5 from 'Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems: Applications. Advances in Management Information Systems', Routledge, 2006.
- Pilita Clark, Working from home is starting to pall, Financial Times, 2 August 2020.
- Gary M Olson and Judith S Olson, Distance matters, Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 15, September 2000.
- Charles Handy, Trust and the Virtual Organization, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995.
- James M Schmidtke and Anne Cummings, The effects of virtualness on teamwork behavioral components: The role of shared mental models, Human Resource Management Review, January 2017.
- S Morrison-Smith and J Ruiz, Challenges and barriers in virtual teams: a literature review, Springer Nature Applied Sciences 2, 2020.
- Julia Eisenberg, Corinne Post and Nancy DiTomaso, Team Dispersion and Performance: The Role of Team Communication and Transformational Leadership, Small Group Research 50(3), February 2019.
- Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Our Work-from-Anywhere Future, Harvard Business Review, November-December 2020.
- Pilita Clark, Pandemic reverses progress on workplace equality, Financial Times, 7 October 2020.
- Visty Banaji, Brave new corporate world: On employee data protection and privacy, 17 April 2018.
- Jim Reid, Global Head of Fundamental Credit Strategy and Thematic Research, Deutsche Bank, What we must do to rebuild, Konzept # 19.
- Visty Banaji, Is HR too fragile?, 12 May 2020
- Charles de Leusse, "Cheval était déjà dans le cœur des Troyens", Extracts from 15 books © of quotations.