The first week of #lockdown saw a flood of articles on #WorkFromHome tips and gushing messages on social media about the joys of domesticity. Pictures and videos were posted of spouses in the kitchen and #Covid19 appeared to be a boon in disguise for re-discovering family values, filial bonding and re-connecting with long lost friends over social media, WhatsApp calls or e-mail.
In Week 2, the honeymoon is already wearing off. Housework is no longer romantic. Boredom is setting in. Confined spaces do not feel cosy anymore. Tempers are frayed. Patience comes at a premium. There is screen fatigue from watching too much of Netflix and HotStar. So, the discourse has changed to meditation, yoga and other ways to reclaim inner calm.
Come Week 3, and we may have a spate of advice on how to prepare for going back to work and the old 9 to 5 (or whatever) routine — assuming the lockdown will be lifted by the April 14, as indicated by the Government. As a WhatsApp wit commented – “Waiting for the 15th – when I can go back to office and rest”.
The lockdown literally came upon us. We did not have much time to prepare. So, we tried to stay afloat after being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Most organisations — barring, perhaps, some MNCs and IT companies — were not ready either technologically or culturally to switch whole-hog into a #WorkFromHome mode overnight.
Technology issues are easy to fathom. In India, not all employees across levels have laptops or computers at home. Internet connections can be patchy, especially in the current situation when the demand for bandwidth has skyrocketed. Of course, almost everyone has a smartphone now — but that is not good enough to transact all business. VPN connections are required to be able to operate ERP systems from home.
Culturally, the issues were more complex. While the focus was on work, routine processes did not receive the same level of attention. But, it is the latter that is more critical for seamless and efficient operation. #WorkFromHome is not just about telecons, Zoom meetings, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and e-mails. These can work for a few days but not on a sustained basis. For teams to collaborate, IT platforms and systems for managing work flows are essential. But, for large sections of the corporate universe, solutions such as MS Teams, Slack, CISCO Meetings — common abroad — were alien concepts.
The general mood right now is that everyone is looking forward to April 15, humming the old Thums Up jingle “Happy Days are here again”. Some may be visualising the bonhomie one sees post a Diwali or New Year break, with colleagues hugging and wishing each other.
Flippancy apart, to assume that the ‘reset’ button will automatically switch on as soon as the #lockdown ends to restore status-quo ante – as they say in legalese – may be utterly simplistic.
If there is a lesson Corona has taught the world, it is about how dangerous it can be to predict the future on the basis of the past. As a corollary to that, pundits seem to agree on one point. The unanimous opinion across the board is that the meta-disruption caused by the #CovidPandemic is going to change the future of work for good. I saw a funny meme asking “Who brought about digital transformation in your company – the CEO, CTO or COVID?” There is a hard truth in that question.
Surely, the experience of work dislocation during the COVID crisis is going to accelerate digital transformation in most organisations. It will no longer be something ‘good to do’ but a question of survival. That will have its implication on jobs and the way business is conducted. Still, that will not happen overnight. But, we should be ready for other changes overtaking us earlier.
The world they said had turned exponentially Variable, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, making VUCA a modern business cliché. However, it was usually talked of in the context of the larger environment. But, going back to office – many may find the VUCA atmosphere has pervaded in the workplace too. There are many variables at play that may cause this.
First, it is highly unlikely that the #lockdown will be lifted at one go. If the Government follows a ‘phased exit’ policy then it will take a long time before the economy limps back to normal. Besides, physical constraints on transit and transportation may continue for some more time — compelling organisations to work with less than optimal or skeletal staffing. So, many of the challenges of #WorkFromHome will remain for a while. It is uncertain as to what policy multinational companies would adopt in the light of global embargoes from the headquarters, unless country-specific exceptions are granted.
There are enough signs to indicate that even if the nationwide lockdown is lifted, some states, Maharashtra for instance, may extend it for some more time, depending on local conditions. There may be new hotspots around the country that have to be isolated, which, in turn, will cause new ripples.
Even if India recovers or brings the situation under control faster than the rest of the world, it still cannot stand as an island in a global economy. From the looks of it, both the US and Europe are in for a long haul. The Middle East remains severely affected. Some far-eastern countries, such as Japan are precariously close to regression. All this will not leave India untouched.
When there is no visibility on what lies ahead, the top management instinctively turns towards what is under its control. This can trigger structural changes aimed at making the organisation lean and fit. This would have obvious implications on headcounts and remuneration, which are usually the easiest to implement.
Finally, Corona has taught us not to double guess it or take it for granted. Experience from around the world shows it has a nasty habit of returning with a vengeance, if people become complacent or callous.
So, it will be prudent for all of us to anticipate the lifting of the #lockdown with cautious optimism.