WFH: optimism in the face of adversity
This article first appeared in Zawya.
There’s no doubt that Covid-19 is accelerating the digital transformation of many sectors and bringing the future of work forward, says Nadim Samara
“Humans, we have a problem”. This adaptation of astronaut Jim Lovell’s famous line from Apollo 13 is the best way to describe today’s global emergency. To take the analogy further, like the engineers on the ground who fixed the problem using only the items the astronauts had on board, we’re having to find ingenious ways to get out of a bad situation using the tools available to us.
Though dwarfed by the scale of the health emergency the world is experiencing right now, with modern day heroes putting their lives on the front line and beyond, businesses are also facing an emergency. Dealing with every level of erosion imaginable, and even unimaginable, many are in a life and death situation for reasons beyond their control.
There’s no doubt that Covid-19 is accelerating the digital transformation of many sectors and brought the future of work forward. As a business, the sooner we figure out how we are going to accommodate these new forces into our business mantra, the sooner we will transform, evolve and, ultimately, adapt.
So, what can we learn, for example, from the first few weeks of Working From Home (WFH)? The top line is that we’re more resilient than we think, and ingenuity is still our ally.
Focus: Some may have thought that we’re more focused in a workplace, that the home environment provides a lot distraction and breeds a lack of accountability. In fact, it’s the opposite that appears to be true. The heightened sense of duty and need to demonstrate performance at this moment in time is certainly a contributing factor, but an office environment certainly comes with its own interruptions and distractions. At home, people tend to become more self-sufficient and resourceful, which means we’re seeing tasks being completed faster and better.
Time management: Like with other aspects of our lives, the situation pushes us to prioritize what’s important. People are more respectful of their time and others’. Online meetings drift less than physical ones and are more efficient. Even our inboxes are becoming less cluttered with unnecessary emails. The absence of commute not only gives people more choice on what to do with this time, exercising for example, but also has a positive impact on the environment.
Agility: Old habits are being replaced by new work practices and expectations. A key one is being comfortable with uncertainty and volatility, to the point where our brains shift to navigating point to point and focus on solutions. Agility and flexibility are now required at all levels. Instead of regimented time and place settings, work can and will happen when and where people are at their best and collaboration will happen regardless. Teams no longer need to comprise individuals in the same place and therefore can involve remote professionals. This enhances a company’s reach and ability to attract and retain the best talent.
Collaboration: Flexible working policies demonstrate openness and trust, between the company and its staff, but also between employees. This improves the employee experience and shapes the organisational culture, a vital component of productivity and employee retention. With the distance, we see greater efforts in briefings and reporting. Because physical interactions are rising in value, WFH will clear out our schedules from unnecessary interruptions and increase productivity further.
Technology: The ability to rapidly adapt to this new reality from an IT perspective was a concern, both in terms of hardware and software. Be it with the availability of laptops, remote access to applications, stable video conferencing, and servers or desk-phone alternatives, all of this at regional scale, the move to WFH hasn’t proved as taxing on the IT infrastructure as initially thought. It definitely makes a version of what we’re experiencing now a viable option for the future.
Office environment: The fewer interruptions and lower noise level employees experience while working from home creates a better environment in which to focus and multi-task efficiently. It also increases job satisfaction. There are lessons in this for the future, in terms of office space management and utilization. This will ultimately lead to lower overheads.
Lower absenteeism and better balance: WFH entails a greater availability for life admin and loved ones, reducing stress and inner conflict. From lower stress comes better health, both physical and mental, and therefore lower absenteeism. The lockdown is a formidable obstacle to this, particularly for parents who home-school young children, but in normal circumstances, the logic could and would apply as people would find a way to adapt.
The future of work is being shaped in front of our eyes, quicker than we thought possible. To keep teams engaged and motivated in this context, leaders have to be brutally honest and share credible hope. Framing the reference of the current situation while painting a picture of what’s ahead, we can align our socially-distant teams and put them on the same path towards recovery and beyond.