Getting India back to work: How to prepare for the new normal
With the number of COVID-19 cases still climbing in India, companies are now faced with the task of deciding whether to open up their offices and get the employees back while keeping them safe.
We are living in truly unprecedented times — a world battling a pandemic is not a business risk too many foresaw. But this extraordinary time has also necessitated steps and measures that few would have believed would work in normal times. During the lockdown, entire businesses were being managed and grown by a committed workforce working exclusively from home.
With the number of COVID-19 cases still climbing in India, startups and larger enterprises are now faced with the task of deciding on whether to open up their offices and get the employees back, even if partly, and how to do this while keeping the employees safe.
If, on the other hand, work from home continues, how will they ensure seamless work and an engaged remote workforce?
Leading with empathy
Factories and manufacturing units do not have this luxury of choice. But technology-first companies do, and so we must exercise this choice responsibly.
While the lockdown has been eased in many parts of the country, including the metropolises where the technology and startup workforce is concentrated, the fact is we are still in the midst of a pandemic.
Employees who have elderly family members or home-bound children, or who themselves have underlying health issues, will worry about commuting and working in an office.
Putting the employee first will help future-focused businesses take the right decision. A survey is a quick, transparent, and democratic way to understand whether employees want to and can continue working from home. Certain teams might feel the need to have some or all members working out of office.
Decisions made with empathy, an organisational quality that is not stressed upon enough, will help create a happy and satisfied pool of employees.
A combination of smaller in-office staff and larger remote workforce will be the new reality for many companies and they will need to implement policies that work for both groups.
While risk-taking is a rightly celebrated startup trait, in times of pandemic it is best to err on the side of caution as far as people’s health is concerned. This point assumes greater significance for the work-from-office population.
It is important to implement processes, like regularly disinfecting every part of the office, especially cleaning AC ducts frequently, and doing temperature checks on staff.
How do you ensure social distancing, should teams come to the office on alternate days, how do you manage lunch hours — these are just some of the questions for which you need to find answers. HR teams, in consultation with experts, will need to document every part of employee movement to and within the office to ensure safety and health is not compromised.
What if a team member working from the office is infected with COVID-19? HR teams will need to have clearly defined protocols for this situation, so no time is wasted, from the logistics of quarantining or hospitalising the affected team member, closing down the office building and disinfecting it, and quarantining those who have come in contact with the affected team member, to having a contingency plan in place so the business overall doesn’t get affected.
Importantly, the company needs to communicate to its people regularly, even to the point of over-communication, all the steps that it is taking to ensure their safety.
Transparency and clear communication will instil confidence.
Making remote work, work
Remote work was supposed to be the future of work; with the lockdown, the future is here. Working remotely is going to be the norm for a large section of the workforce for the foreseeable future. The lockdown also highlighted the challenges and advantages of working remotely.
Ensuring employees can work comfortably from home is the primary need. Some may not have high-speed internet, others might not have a comfortable work chair. We have found that providing a no-questions-asked allowance to set up a home office and partnering with brands offering such products like ergonomic chairs at a subsidised cost goes a long way in making the employee’s life that much easier.
One of the bigger challenges for a distributed workforce is collaboration. It helps to have core working hours for scheduling all work-related virtual meetings and interactions. This gives employees clarity and helps set boundaries.
Further, with the availability of technology tools like Slack that encourage interactions through formal and social channels, collaboration virtually is not as much a challenge. Add to this regular digital all-hands and town hall meetings and employee engagement remains high.
The lockdown has proved beyond doubt that productivity is not hit by working from home. In fact, burnout is a greater concern. Employees should be encouraged to block a specific set of hours each day to complete work and then switch off.
Employees should also take regular time off from work, even when working remotely or from home, so they can recoup and recharge themselves.
Engaging with the millennial workforce beyond work is as important as collaborating for work. During the lockdown, employees proactively volunteered with their time and skill; some have conducted cooking lessons for those who did not know how to cook, others have conducted sessions on yoga or crafts, and many have also taught their work-related skills. This gentler side of work humanises the ‘office’ and goes a long way in making employees feel valued.
One of the positives of the lockdown has been the attention given to mental health. The pandemic, sheltering-at-home, and lack of direct interactions with others has led to an increase in anxiety and has exacerbated existing mental health issues. Companies need to be cognizant of this.
Empanelling psychologists and counsellors with whom the employees can talk to confidentially definitely helps. So does conducting regular team sessions. The goal should be to be a support system for the employee and to empower them.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is unpredictable and there is only so much we can plan and prepare for and, so, organisations need to be nimble and quick to react.
Instituting policies that are grounded in empathy and are sustainable and scalable will help build in resilience and help the company and employees weather future storms.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)