“Going to work” brings a different image and understanding than what it did six months ago before the COVID19 pandemic. In the rapidly changed era of work from home, going to work could simply mean moving from one room in one’s home to another room where your “workplace” is, or from one point in one’s room to another, where the work desk is located.An employee’s entire workplace is now embedded in the microcosm of a digital device.
This move of a few steps is expected to require a mind leap along with a swift changing of gears into the work mode for the work duration.The new work mode requires clearer and sharper critical skills by way of adaptability notably growth mindset or the ability to learn in one’s work journey, structured problem solving ability that combines skills to ask the right questions and give the right answers together with breaking down problems in logical order to address, digital adeptness emphasizing the ability to navigate digital devices and pace up work. Employers are realizing that there is more need than ever to having business operations that are more attuned to human needs, particularly employees and clients. Empathy is now the new “fit” that organizations demand from their employees, particularly those in leadership positions.
Just a few months into the new normal a new reality has surfaced.This new reality draws our attention to blurred lines of demarcation of work time and home time. Meetings and discussions are as likely to be scheduled between 9 am to 5 pm as they are scheduled before 9 am or after 5 pm to address multiple responsibilities employees have to now shoulder with not only them, but their entire family being at home. Employees with a young family may be pulled into coaching their school going children with their studies during school hours that typically still are scheduled anywhere between 8 am to 3 pm. It may meanbeing “on call” as an IT support for their primary school children who find navigating zoom or google or other similar connections on their computer as complex as calculus. It may mean being the care giver for their elderly, in the absence of registered care givers who can no longer make home visits. It may mean being the cook or sous chef hunting for recipes online while being the designated online family shopper in between meeting work deadlines.
In other words, for a typical employee whose profession allows work from home in the new normal, it may mean concentrated and short spans of being in work mode alternating with being in home mode or away from work mode. There probably scores of examples but here I would mention two that struck positive notes of silver lining amidst the overwhelming COVID distress, and which could resonate with many in the same or similar situations.
Conversations with a neighbor who works from home as an auditorspecified inclusion of a new performance indicator which assesses his ability to seamlessly move from working on one key responsibility area to working on another at a moment’s notice.He finds that he can do this easily at any time as he finds he has more energy with no need to navigate traffic jams to and fro office. He also finds himself inclined to using his free time to browse online courses to keep himself updated and continue upskilling. He is amazed at this self-revelation as he finds himself adapting to a new work environment far more swiftly than he thought he would.
During a call from aformer colleaguefrom the Human Resource field revealed another emerging dimension, that of higher performance and with it, the motivation for reskilling. Shementioned she finds she is outperforming herself given the flexibility to work in the early morning hours from 4 am to 8 am when she feels the most productive. Previously, early morning demands at home sapped much of her energy before she left for office.She often needed a few hours to recharge after she reached office, before she became fully productive.With the hours of demand from her family shifting significantly from after 8 am as all are at home, she realized she actually gets more done in this compressed time than in the entire 8 hours of routine office time. She is however realizing that her current “work from home” situation has opened up new opportunities for her to explore for future. Being tech savvy and a good grasp of spreadsheets, she plans to combine both skills in reskilling herself as a people analytics specialist, which is a rapidly growing field in the HR even during the pandemic.
The swift shift to a digital way of working has its share of challenges in this journey of the new normal. Employees who performed well and delivered timely outcomes when working in teams with face to face work platforms are struggling to deliver individually on digital platforms. They sorely feel the loss of a physical environment where they could “pop in” a work space of another fellow employee and seek support or brainstorm a solution. Now, with flexible work hours in place, with each employee choosing certain hours to work and ensure timely deliverables, their work hours may not coincide with another fellow workers. This is at times seen as a bottleneck to seeking and receivingrapid support.
On the other hand, need for digital ways of working has also led to the emergence of talent shift, talent share and talent support. Employees with limited skills of navigating the internet or lacking tech savvy are seen scrambling to catch up with their more skilled colleagues and to survive in the job market. “How to” tags on the internet are probably being researched at unprecedented numbers as more and more people gravitate towards alternative sources of knowledge transfer other than from colleagues and fellow workers. Workplaces that enable and encourage talent and positively recognize skills are finding that employees who are IT savvy are blossoming in the rays of appreciation and in turn are motivated to share their knowledge with other less savvy colleagues. This is spawning a new age of team work amongst work colleagues that is creating team bonds across what were formerly silo type functional divides and transforming these into cross functional workspaces.
Employers are also finding that attitudinal differences between workers, often less visible or more manageable during team work in a physical interface, are now surfacing sharply with adverse impact. Workers with negative attitudes who voice their negativity are standing out as sore thumbs and seen to be adding stress to an already distressed work environment. With digital interactions becoming more frequent with individual employees, those with negative attitudes stand a higher chance of being starkly exposedwhen they speak, by the feedback they give and the solutions (or lack thereof) they offer.
In contrast,employeeswith positivity who bring smiles and extend support to work teams are also standing out more andbeing appreciated more. This distinct and visible contrast between positivity and negativity is prompting many employers to rethink relevance of retaining negative employees. It has also prompting questioning the traditional notion of an employee “fit” in the new normal of remote operations that has addedemphasis on the 3 E’s empathy, energy and effectiveness in producing desired business results.
The workplace in the new normal is thus rapidly shifting gears to becoming demanding agility with adaptability and awareness in a complex journey of multiple experiences within microcosms of remote work from home locations.
Dyuti Baral is Faculty & Head of Capacity Building at South Asian Institute of Management and a former faculty of the Central Department of Sociology at Kirtipur, Tribhuvan University. She is also an independent consultant in human resource management and in social research. She has worked in I/NGOs such as ActionAid, World Education and Plan International as well as a reputed research NGO New ERA.