The Year Of The Virus

The Year Of The Virus

Even as companies assimilate the lessons learnt from 2020 and plan their next steps for better managing employees, there are new and immediate challenges looming in the new year.


The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic whichdamaged the world economy, bereaved families, and disrupted lives everywhere. For work organisations, it was also a year when several important lessons were learnt by all.


The first lesson was that a surprisingly large number of jobs can be done from home. Many organisations that would have dismissed any possibility of their particular work getting done from home have had to accept that this was indeed possible. Not only that, many companies saw improved productivity from their workforce in this period.


The second big realisation was that people who worked from home in the past were not having a cushy time. All preconceptions were laid to rest as people working from home, for the first time in their lives, saw their personal and work schedules mingle so much that they seemed to be at work morning to night on all the days of the week. People in office mocking people who worked from home is certainly a thing of the past.


The third learning was that people have an amazing capacity to learn new ways of working quickly. For instance, many school teachers whose past familiarity with technology was often limited to messaging on the phone learnt to be savvy with setting up video conference calls, delivering lessons online and conducting remote tests and assessments.


 The fourth insight was that there were many people in every organisation, who were not adding much value. They seemed to become invisible and redundant this year. Work seemed to be happening without much contribution from these, often middle to senior management, staff. They seemed to be pathetically drawing attention to themselves by arranging unnecessary meetings and making pointless calls to their juniors and seniors, probably because they did not know how to spend the time on hand.


The fifth lesson was that all work can be managed by monitoring outcomes. There was no way to physically see how people were spending their time, and somehow, this did not matter anymore as long as they finished their assigned tasks on time. There were no longer any brownie points to be earned by coming to office early and leaving after the boss left. Some people did persist in marking their apparent diligence by sending communications at early hours of the morning or late at night, but when everyone was blending life and work anyway, this did not impress anyone.


These lessons were learnt while responding to the environmental shock delivered by the virus. Some of these learnings will lead to logical next steps of the kind outlined below.


Firstly, and this is a no-brainer which has already been extensively discussed on many forums and in the media, work practices will be codified so that even after the pandemic ends, many people will be asked to work from home more often than not. This will reduce all kinds of costs including office rentals, upkeep and transport. This will be both good and bad for employees. Good because of convenience and bad because of the loss of opportunities to bond and build social capital, and to get away from domestic concerns for a part of the day.


Secondly, now that almost every kind of company has seen a large variety of jobs getting done well from home, there will be a greater acceptance of gig workers, who may cost less. Such contractual employment will also offer greater flexibility in cost management as this kind of engagement is easier to ramp down when work is lean. Companies can be expected to revisit and strengthen processes for engaging people under a wider set of employment contracts - onrolls, part-time, piece-work based, and full-time contractual working outside the office.


Thirdly, companies will see value in restructuring compensation and benefits so that employees are reimbursed for investing in ergonomic work environments, improved IT infrastructure and other costs incurred while working from home. Some companies have already started doing it by redefining allowances relating to commuting and meals. Others may choose to follow.


Fourthly, now that outcome based monitoring has become widely accepted, companies may tweak their goal-setting, performance appraisal and variable pay practices to accommodate this lesson. Many companies that confined their target-based variable pay policies to sales staff may decide to extend that approach to more segments of their workforce.


Even as companies assimilate the lessons learnt from 2020 and plan their next steps for better managing employees, there are new and immediate challenges looming in the new year. For many companies, these will prove daunting, especially when seen alongside the lessons of 2020. These challenges arise from the proposed changes in employment-related legislation. The new labour codes have several novel features. Just to give two examples, allowances cannot comprise more than half the total compensation and overtime pay entitlements cover a greater variety of positions. HR managers will have to extensively review and recast existing policies to meet these and other new requirements. For many managers this will be the most comprehensive overhaul of compensation and benefit systems they have ever been involved in.


If 2020 was a year of adapting to a sudden shock and drawing lessons for the future, the new year offers opportunities to deploy those learnings and respond to the somewhat more benign challenges that are specific and clearly visible. The old year was one of scrambling to improvise. The new year will be one of meticulous study and detailing.


Gautam Brahma is a management consultant who advises start-ups and SMEs on strategy & operations including sales, HR and IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and a monthly columnist on HR issues for nearly two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]


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