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Beyond COVID: Workplace Productivity Future

Narinder Sharma

Pandemic vs productivity battle

As the world struggles with threats and hysteria over the Coronavirus, organisations and governments worldwide have responded in varying degrees. While some had to implement work-from-home arrangements, others have mandated a more severe shutdown. Most organisations encourage WFH to prevent the risk of the spread of Coronavirus, and not as much for work-life balance or Flexi-work. 

 There were two schools of thought for WFH – the first school suggested: that “less work will be done; productivity will be lower, and unsupervised employees will slack off”. I was part of the latter camp and placed much more trust in people who believed, “Employees will feel energised, having been freed from the stress of commuting, along with the daily drudgeries of the corporate world, and they will churn out task after task after task”. 

Most organisations were sceptic and assumed there should be a firewall between home and work. Many managers were used to working in a scenario where most of the team members were around them. 

“Working virtually requires managers to trust on the team members, and there is a greater need for transparency than surveillance.” 

From a mental health viewpoint, many people prefer an office environment to differentiate work life and home life and need the social interaction the office environment offers. While stressful, the commute is a buffer to wind down for others.

person using black and silver laptop computer
WFH and Productivity

Productivity debate 

Productivity is relative and dependent upon the quality of the home working environment. For those with a dedicated bolthole or home office, productivity may not suffer. It may not be the case – where people are trying to work from the kitchen table; or for households where couples or flatmates are all trying to work from home simultaneously. Some can ignore the temptation of a trip to the fridge or watching daytime television but not all exhibit the same level of restraint & discipline. 

The masses are divided on the impact of WFH on productivity & quality of work. Many strongly believe productivity will be adversely affected when working from home. Historically, WFH has been considered on leave; if someone wanted to work from home, it was looked at with an element of suspicion. COVID has created an unprecedented challenge globally and forced a worldwide lockdown and thus WFH. Until last year many considered WFH a holiday, but the current situation has shredded many such myths. Many realised that work-life balance had become work-life integration.

“You will be surprised to see what people can achieve when trusted.”

A recent study indicates that more than half of the people found productivity increase resulting from the extension of work hours. People are saving time travelling to work and are not forced to take carer-leave due to work-life integration. Most workers start the day early and finish late, weaving in their daily home activities like dropping off/pick their school children, preparing lunch for the family etc. This is evident from a sharp decline in people requesting sick, carer leaves compared to Pre-COVID times. 

Pre-COVID, my average travel time to work was about 3.5 hours to Sydney CBD. Commute time for one of my team members in the Philippines is about 6+ hours a day, three hours each way on a good day. Such commute times just did not make any sense. 

With WFH, most of the workforce benefitted and saved not only commute time but also travel costs and childcare. You have a physiological limit when you are in the office but not at home. So, most professionals end up getting more work done when at home. 

Larger organisations are also beginning to see the benefits of working remotely. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) announced that up to 75% of its global workforce will work from home by 2025. Similarly, Facebook announced that 50% of its personnel WFH permanently. Twitter will allow its employees to work from home “Forever“. 

Stress, Burnout and Empathy

Employees must manage home affairs and extended working hours. It requires a lot of discipline by the individual to be effective in the current scenario. At the same time, managers also must show some sensitivity towards people. Working from home does not mean you are available 24×7, and managers must respect the time boundaries. 

If managers WFH and create work-life balance, then it helps improve productivity. It is essential managers understand the flexible arrangement and importance of work-life balance. As a manager, promote taking a short regular break from work every hour and ensure team members do not burn out due to the elongated activity.  

The COVID pandemic is stressful, it may affect people differently based on their background, social support from family or friends, financial situation, health and emotional level, the community they live in and so on. Some might be caring for the elderly, some might be dealing with financial difficulties, loss of their dear ones, separation from the rest of family in another country or only just worried about the current or future state. While true, there is an opportunity to create a deeper connection and share a glimpse of the “person” behind the role. As people communicate, they will express another side of their persona. Leaders have this opportunity to create a stronger emotional connection within their teams and with the organisation. It will help build greater empathy, respect and support for each other, thereby creating a better organisation.

Constraint and Challenges 

WFH is also constrained by several factors, including infrastructure, resources, health & safety, job criticality, etc. At the start of the pandemic and lockdowns, cracks began to show in the home-work environment – “People were working from the sofa, dining table, and bed; all of this was not designed for long hours of laptop work.” Many did not have a suitable work atmosphere or even equipment for a conference call, work desk or a proper chair with lumbar support for prolonged working hours. Managers hardly appreciate the domestic distractions, interests and predicaments of their teams. If only they knew, some could empathise and encourage better.

Training of staff while WFH is a considerable impediment. Graduate lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers etc. all benefit hugely from working day-to-day in an office environment, where they can learn directly on the job.

WFH improvements are possible at mid-level or higher management, while those in essential or critical roles or those tasked with lower workforce functions like manufacturing are still required to work at the site.  

The major challenge for us was getting people to adjust to the new skills and keeping them engaged. At our workplace, we have held the team involved & engaged with the regular casual virtual coffee sessions. These sessions prompted a sense of togetherness and improved team bond, I feel this is especially important in these challenging times.

Risk, threat and technology

Security, Data breach, NDA agreements, and Lack of training are just a few risks to name. Once everyone realised it was the new normal, organisations took every possible step to make the IT infrastructure ready/available and secure for WFH. While many organisations have adopted WFH reasonably well, either by providing the employee with a laptop at home or allowing BYO devices, extending the VPN network capabilities or using the tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. 

Teething problems were adjusting to the new normal – getting used to the mute button, working with the cloud, collaborating with the more modern technological toolset, slower broadband, insufficient VPN bandwidth available and so on; however, most of the things got fixed within the first few weeks. Both organisations and employees working hand in hand, supporting each other like working in shifts to avoid congestion to the VPN network, are commendable examples.

Gradually technology problems got solved, and organisational issues started. People are improving their communication skills by replacing regular 1-hour meetings with more on-demand impromptu short and sweet audio/video virtual meetings. Working remotely, people do things virtually that they were doing in person. 

Fortunately for us, our organisation was better prepared than some others, we implemented controls like data classification and data loss prevention to overcome some of the above technological risks. With help from the latest technologies and applications, Microsoft Teams brought everyone together without compromising on security.

The Future of the workplace

Modern offices are designed for collaboration, foster teamwork, and to bring people; and not distance people and thereby preventing the spread of the disease. The pandemic has forced companies around the globe to rethink workplace design, alongside where & how they operate. 

Remember that the pandemic may be around us for a long time (another 18-24 months or maybe longer). Organisations will have to learn & adapt to live with the virus and be prepared for such future events. WHO articulated this won’t be our last pandemic, therefore, organisations must rethink retrofitting existing office setup and consider flexible designs for new offices. 

This will change office design and layouts; its extent of change will vary from industry to industry. In the financial and professional sectors, I think we will see greater demand for offices to be hotspot desks and meeting hubs. Many businesses already adopting a hot-desking approach won’t see a considerable reduction in their need for space as more sanitised meeting rooms and socially distanced working areas are required.