People@Work

The ‘back to office’ rush — is it wise?

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on July 15, 2020 Published on July 15, 2020

Are corporates adequately geared to return to the workplace or making a hash of it?

This May, Boston-based software veteran Ed Jennings was hired by Quick Base, the $1-billion SaaS company, as its new CEO. However, he is yet to visit the company’s Massachusetts headquarters. Not surprising in these times. But still, I need to ask you this — how many of you are itching to go to the office, sit in the cafeteria, and have a cup of coffee with your favourite colleagues?

I am sure many of us are raring to go. But the tone of the majority of employees globally and in India is of caution. Almost half of the employees polled by consultancy firm PwC in the US recently said safety measures onsite still don’t inspire confidence. Back home, a survey by health tech firm FYI highlighted that more than 93 per cent of workers were anxious to return to office but feared their health would be compromised.

Safety or normalcy?

So, where do we draw the line between the safety of employees and the enterprise need to declare a return to normalcy? Employers are thoroughly confused.

When I heard that one of my entrepreneur friends had terminated his office lease, I thought his business must have been affected severely. However, he said, “I don't want to risk the lives of my employees and their dear ones just because I feel there are advantages of being at the office.”

However, not every enterprise can carry out its work in the remote model. In manufacturing units, physical presence is inevitable. But why are knowledge-based organisations, whose work can be done from anywhere, in such a rush to get their employees back to office? The recent outbreak of Covid, some even leading to deaths at a few large Indian enterprises, begs the question. Is India Inc making a muddle out of its return to office process? What's playing out inside the enterprises?

Swank facilities beckon

In the US, Amazon and Apple have invested billions of dollars in sparkling new facilities that can house thousands of employees. Metros in India have also seen large enterprises and real estate companies making significant commitments to construct huge sprawling offices. These investments will be weighing on the CFO’s mind when advising the CEO. Some of the enterprise facilities are so large that social distancing in the office might be possible by working in shifts or rostering of employees.

At these places, employers sure will take care of the hygiene and safety of employees in offices. But they might be ignoring a critical angle, the commute. Most employees have to use multiple modes of public transport to reach their place of work, and that increases the touch points. How will that safety be accounted for, and who shall be responsible for it?

Leaders caught in the past

"Our CEO thinks all managers coming to the office give the right signal to our staff,” says a technology company CXO. So, in the last few weeks, the CXO and others are forced to attend office, where all the work may be happening through video calls only.

“Even with my EA, I speak on skype,” he says. “Can these video interfaces not happen from home?” I asked.

With a wry smile, he said, “Our CEO believes that working in the office increases collaboration and we have limited voice in this matter. In our internal surveys, most employees still don’t want to come but are forced to sign declarations about their willingness to report due to the nudge.”

The point here is not about who is calling the shots but how we are caught in the past about work processes. Are some of the leaders refusing to change to the new way of working? Why should our past templates of getting together for whiteboarding, sitting across the aisle, be the only proven way of teamwork? Is it time for new hacks to ideation, teambuilding than physically being together?

Worried about culture

One of the passionate arguments made by many leaders is that influential company culture is not built within the confines of home. But isn’t the threat to life severe enough to think and discover new ways of building culture? For long, global enterprises have had distinct local identities despite touting certain common corporate cultures. Though the posters across the offices used the same words, the behaviours had distinct differences across geographies. Maybe for a brief period, we can now take employee health seriously and worry about our culture later.

Mental health

There are new collateral damages for enterprises that might have saved travel costs and real estate expenses due to WFH. They need to be worried about the stress employees are going through due to job security concerns and working from home pressure. For example, some of the working mothers feel the burden has increased exponentially as work and family responsibilities have now doubled at home. A large number of young Indian IT workers are cooped up in their crowded PG digs.

WFH has also increased work hours at home, blurred the boundaries between office and home, moreover, work has stretched to weekends. Most of our homes are not designed for WFH, and the lack of physical separation of work is increasing stress. This may not be good for our mental well-being if this continues.

ls getting employees to the office the best solution from the WFH stress? Would we not further increase the health and safety anxiety with Covid-19 rapidly spreading across the country?

For organisations that need their employees only to apply their cognitive ability, it’s essential to try newer methods to address engagement, collaboration, culture, productivity, and mental health. Getting workers to office because that’s the only tool that worked in the past will be endangering the lives of colleagues who trusted us as employers!

Post Covid, leaders of organisations will be remembered for the empathy and compassion towards their colleagues. The rush to the office is maybe avoidable.

 

Kamal Karanth is co founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm

 

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Published on July 15, 2020
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