On March 24, 2020, the world of work changed in our country. The 21-day lockdown started in India. Since then, I have heard of virtual job interviews, virtual farewells and virtual lay-offs. Even virtual funerals and weddings.
We are all doing things we are not accustomed to. We are questioning our assumptions about why we need a workplace to work. The norms of the workplace that have remained unchanged for a century stand broken. To navigate this unfamiliar world, we need to build trust in the workplace.
A large insurance provider had kept payroll and performance data on their intranet. The lockdown prevented them from accessing their intranet. PeopleStrong, their HR platform provider, had to get a team to work for 48 hours at a stretch to ensure salaries were not delayed. This is exactly how a tsunami strikes the unsuspecting. Only, this time, the pandemic triggered a digital tsunami. Everything was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The VUCA world is well and truly here.
The ground reality of VUCA
For years, leadership development programmes have been talking about dealing with a VUCA world. The pandemic has made us experience what each letter of the alphabet stands for in the VUCA world.
V = Volatility: The nature and speed of change was blindingly fast. Businesses had to deal with the sudden lockdown to curb the pandemic. The lockdown in India triggered the biggest migration on foot since Partition. In the absence of their daily wages, 120 million migrants had to travel back to their villages on foot.
U = Uncertainty: No one knows when the situation will return to “normalcy”. The global economy is in the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression. All plans are in suspended animation.
C = Complexity: Leaders are having to make choices that are complex. Should the business lay off people or reduce salaries across the board to save jobs?
A = Ambiguity: Everyday, leaders are having to take decisions that have no precedence. Should the business go ahead with the additional costs of annual increments? Job offers have been withdrawn, leaving people in between jobs
Healing with trust
While the organised sector grappled with remote work, the unorganised sector grappled with survival. Trust in the workplace relationships has been reset for everyone. It has changed our equation with work, our colleagues and our employers. The “discomfort that we are experiencing is grief”.
Residents of Jalandhar were delighted to see the Dhauladhar range of mountains because pollution levels dropped. Engineers on ONGC rigs have spotted whales swimming by unafraid. The earth is healing itself. It is time the world of work got healed too. That begins with building trust.
1. Trusting remote workers
One of the IT majors had to buy 4,000 laptops for its workforce that had to start remote working overnight. In many businesses, remote work was a privilege offered to a select group of senior leaders. Overnight, employees have discovered that remote work is possible for more roles than they imagined. Video conferencing software Zoom’s usage has skyrocketed. But Zoom’s trust levels have eroded, given its track record on privacy and data security.
What is missing is trust between employees and their bosses. Suspicious employers are using software to track keystrokes and screenshots of remote workers. Employees wonder if remote work will continue in future or if this is only a temporary reprieve from long commutes.
2. Trusting the employers' actions
Employees have never had to invite their bosses and colleagues into their home. Unscheduled video calls are eroding the privacy of the employee’s home. Employers often assume everyone has a dedicated workspace and high-speed internet to do video calls.
The manager's ability to build trust in the new paradigm is being tested. Employees wonder if the employer can be trusted to keep their job safe.
Employers have to learn how to earn the trust of the employees by being able to build camaraderie, compassion and handling conflicts online. This is a skill gap that has got showcased prominently.
3. Trusting the health of everyone around
Gig workers and freelancers have to fend for themselves and their loved ones when it comes to healthcare. This pandemic taught us that even one infected person can make the world come to a standstill. Unless everyone in the ecosystem is healthy, no one will be safe.
Businesses have to pool in part of their resources to provide healthcare coverage to freelancers and gig workers. Universal healthcare may be what enlightened self-interest may look like. Health insurance of the support staff employed by households must become part of everyone’s wages.
4. Trust in the time of Covid
Cyber criminals are leveraging the fear and panic around the pandemic to launch phishing operations disguised as corona advisories. Cyber security experts are grappling with the challenge of data protection and privacy in this setting no one trained them for. The foundation of the $180-billion-a-year outsourcing industry in India that employs 4 million people is being scrutinised. Internal systems and call centres for many European and US companies are being run out of countries like the Philippines and India. Trust needs to be re-established between the business and outsourcing industry.
Shrinking time horizons
During times of stress, our time horizons shrink. We worry more about survival issues than long-term prosperity. The root cause of the stress lies in the loss of trust between the employer and employee. We have moved from thinking about achieving self-actualisation to fretting about survival. Paranoid managers calling team members endlessly to check on them can be driven by true empathy or the desire for surveillance. Predictability is the antidote for the stress caused by uncertainty. Trust generates psychological safety.
Psychologist Erik Erikson refers to building trust as the first stage of human development. Knowing that we are interdependent, and we trust each other is the reason to hope for a better tomorrow. War and natural disasters can be powerful forces that form bonds that last a lifetime. We can turn this pandemic to be a force for rejuvenation.
Businesses have already reconciled to a few quarters of losses and sluggish growth. We have already discovered that work can also be done from home. Maybe the workplaces can be places where people go to get inspired and realise their potential. The earth is healing. Why not heal the workplaces too.
Abhijit Bhaduri is a digital transformation coach to organisations
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