Businesses don’t have the luxury of advance notice

Professor Vidyanand Jha, IIM Calcutta, opines that owing to the COVID-19 situation, things are changing pretty fast and managers of various companies have no choice but to think on their feet. They are trying to evolve ways to deal with these uncertain times where decision making by the government related to the pandemic and its attendant details have been decentralized to the level of districts and local bodies and everything is dynamic.

Professor Vidyanand Jha, IIM Calcutta

IBT: What impact has COVID-19 had on managerial operations of firms across the industries? What strategies can they adopt in order to tide over this crisis?

Prof. Vidyanand Jha: COVID-19 has increased the uncertainty in the business environment in multiple ways. Many companies are finding it difficult to produce; while many companies are finding that demand for their product has gone down. Some companies have both the demand for their goods and the resources to produce, but they don’t have the workers which leads to loss of business. They are trying to evolve ways to deal with this uncertainty, of which work from home is just one coping mechanism.

In many cases though, say for example, manufacturing industry, work from home is not really possible. So, there they are trying to make workplaces safer by periodic sanitization and by spreading awareness about the infection and preventive measures like social distancing, use of masks and frequent washing of hands at the factory level. They are getting their employees periodically tested. They are taking precautionary measures but still from newspaper reports or personal information, I have heard of factories which have had to be closed down when substantial number of people have tested positive for COVID-19. Service businesses that required customers to participate in the service process like physical retail, hotels, cinemas have been hit harder due to customers not being willing to venture out. Some companies, especially, online retail and online grocery and medicine business are doing better than before. Some manufacturing companies like consumer goods companies have also started selling new products in the personal hygiene and immunity building categories or are selling more of the existing products in these categories.

Everybody, including the governments, is learning. They have not dealt with this kind of a situation before. The last pandemic, the one which people compare this pandemic to is the Spanish Influenza of 1914. So, that is 100 plus years ago. Basically, nobody knows much as to how to deal with the pandemic. Though people may not accept that they don’t know it, that is the fact of the matter. They are learning on the job so to say. So, in some cases, decisions seem to be taken without prior planning or due thought. For example, the lockdowns being announced in various parts of the country from time to time have been rather sudden. And in some cases, the dates also get changed frequently.

That has created problems for organizations that need their people to come to work. If you say half your employees will come for one week and the other half will come for the next week, and the next week you suddenly have a lockdown, what will you do about it? So, manpower planning and deployment has become tougher. There is also no uniformity in regulations across states, and within the states, across districts and cities in the definition of which services or businesses are allowed to operate. And that itself keeps changing along with time. Clearly, the businesses don’t have the luxury of advance notice, despite governments’ best efforts. So, things are changing pretty fast; the managers need to think on their feet basically. They need to constantly evolve strategy and thought. So, that is the overall impact.

IBT: Be it emotionally, financially or in terms of health – the pandemic has taken a toll on employees all across the nation. In your opinion, how should the employers keep the morale of their workforce high and keep them motivated during these testing times?

Prof. Vidyanand Jha: Lots of things have happened. We’re living in times where going out of the house is problematic, while being at the house all the time is more problematic. We have been at home for almost around four and a half months now. So, it is a difficult situation.

On one hand, you have large multinationals which have appointed psychological counsellors for their people because these are very difficult times for everyone, and the companies want to help the overall well-being, including psychological well-being of their employees. But a number of organizations have left their employees to deal with the situation on their own.

Some companies have retained their employees, but  they have said that they would not increase their salaries in the near future. Central government, one of the large employers, has taken that stance. There are organizations which have asked people to take a pay cut, but retained them. And then there are also organizations which have asked people to go. Moreover, casualization as mode of employment, what we know otherwise as contractual jobs, has increased in last three decades. And people on contract, from all sectors, both government as well as private sector, have had to face loss of jobs. So, there is a spectrum of responses. Predictably, contractual employees and employees of MSMEs are bearing the biggest brunt of loss of incomes and jobs.

Now, I am not questioning these organizations which choose a strategy based on their own specific situation. If they need to let go people, as a last resort, they have to. But transparency in decision making in this regard will be integral in winning the trust of employees. Even here some good examples are emerging. I was told of a hotel group where senior managers took larger pay cuts and strove towards retaining all the employees. This obviously is the ideal and it would bring untold benefits to the organization to build its employer branding as the company that cares. Even if an organization is forced to let its people go, transparency in making these decisions makes a difference.  Let me argue it out why this is so.

Organizational justice, that is, the employee perception of fairness in the workplace has four components: distributive (who gets what outcome), procedural (the process through which these outcomes were arrived), informational (giving employees information about what concerns them) and interactional (how managers behave in their interactions). Now even in a situation where an employee has had a bad outcome, say being asked to leave, if it is accompanied by her sense of fairness regarding the other three components of organizational justice, she feels better about herself and the organization.  Moreover, studies show that it also affects the perception of fairness among the employees who remain. So, even if an employee remains, (and her distributive justice is fulfilled), if the decisions have not been transparent, it makes the employees who remain, become prone to uncertainty and leads them to become guilty and less satisfied with their jobs and organizations.

So, I believe that the organizations need to make employment and income related decisions during the pandemic in a more transparent fashion and that would pay them handsome rewards by increasing the sense of fairness among their employees. That in turn would make their employees more productive and also improve the employer branding of the organization. More frequent communication about what is happening to the organization and its plans are also needed to improve employees’ sense of well-being. The communication has to be regular and also broader. Not only transactional, that is only about the work. In a situation of real and ever-present danger, where people are going through so much of anxieties due to facing health related challenges and/or loss of family and friends, their workplace needs to support them. This is also required as given the long hours people used to spend at work, their workplace is their primary place for social support.

Lastly, to keep the morale of the workforce high organizations need to listen to their employees by establishing internal helplines and also by making available psychological counselling for those who wish to access it.

IBT: Given that work from home has become the de-facto mode of operation in a significant number of businesses owing to the ongoing health exigency, what tactics can be employed to ensure optimal labour productivity? How can employers regulate the conduct of your employees in a way that is mutually beneficial?

 Prof. Vidyanand Jha: This whole question of labour productivity during work from home gives me a sense that the basic assumptions about employees are not very healthy. It hints at suspecting the possibilities of opportunistic and truant behaviour if direct physical control and gaze is not maintained. But these assumptions seem rather invalid to me.

What has actually happened is that remote working has increased work. Earlier when an employee went to work, even if she were a hard-working and over worked person she worked from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM and after 10:00 PM people knew to leave her alone. Right now, she is at the beck and call of her employers and they can call her at any time, she is always accessible. Her responses have to be instantaneous and the quantum of work has also increased. These are some of the ways in which the work from home has affected people. Family time and me time has shrunk.  When the employee is physically at home, but mentally not there,  that creates more dissonance than not being there at all. Moreover, some things take more time than they took when everybody was present under the same roof.

What has also happened is the lack of social contact, which is going to be problematic in a longer term. For example, employees’ access to informal sources of information, like gossip and cooler side chats, has decreased from what they were able to do while they were working physically in a workplace. People thus will become more isolated and the sense of overall wellbeing may also go down. An Indian news magazine ran a cover story some years back with the headline, that ‘Friends are the new family”. Now colleagues are actually the new family because people spent most of their  time with their colleagues in the workplace. But they are not interacting with them as often as before. Being isolated at home is reducing their social contact and reducing their sense of well-being.,

It could have further issues related to it in the sense that wherever they need collective action, it is becoming more difficult. So individual employees are becoming more vulnerable to unfair treatment or harassment. This decrease in the possibility of collective action further reduces an individual’s control over her work situation and leads to lessened feelings of well-being.

IBT: What is your view on remote working? How did the idea germinate in the first place?

Prof. Vidyanand Jha: Basically, work from home or remote working or tele-commuting, these are the terms that get used. All these have been studied for almost three decades now. There seems to be primarily three reasons for studying working from home in the past.

One was that it was the part of the flexible working arrangement. In some of the Western European countries, the societies were affluent enough to think about the trade off between work and leisure. Basically, they wanted individuals to have more control over their time so that they can devote that time to non-work domains of their lives. That brought in ideas of flexibility in both time and space structuring. Flexible workdays or variant thereof or flexible working arrangements like work from home came into play. It also was aimed at giving employees a chance to devote more time to their families due to familial responsibilities that came their way due to their specific life cycle stage. It could be young mothers and fathers deciding to accommodate child rearing along with their work, it could be couples giving each other a chance to participate in the labour force by sharing home responsibilities or it could be working children spending more time with ageing parents.

Second reason is that as companies globalized, they had these distributed teams in various geographies. The scale of operation in some geographies didn’t warrant hiring of full-fledged office. So, people worked from home offices. Globally distributed work or teams (for example parts of IT industry in India) also necessitated working at what would be an odd hour locally and hence employees were allowed work from home.  Indian IT industry’s model of off shoring of work made it part of globally distributed work teams and strengthened the idea of remote working. Work from home was sometimes a part of this.

Third reason is the nature of unplanned urbanization happening in many parts of the world including India. Either commuting to work got tougher or hiring office spaces got costlier and that also made many companies to allow work from home for some of their employees.

The current work from home is different in its philosophy from all of these. It is driven towards letting the organizations work and consequently letting the economy function at some level without jeopardizing employees’ health. There also travel restrictions and need for social distancing that are contributing to it. In fact, the space required for implementing social distancing would be much larger than what the organizations have right now. And in an uncertain economy, they would like to make do with what they already have rather than investing in fresh office space.

IBT: How well does this concept fare in today’s times?

Prof. Vidyanand Jha: The original promise of remote working was more flexibility between work and family domains. That has not necessarily happened as the workload seems to have increased. Therefore, as I said earlier employees are physically available at home, but actually not there. For a good number of Indians, the housework was farmed out to domestic helps. In a situation where the earlier access to domestic helps seems to be getting disrupted, the time required for household chores has increased. Moreover, given the current situation, household chores themselves have become more in number and become more complex. So even if some time is saved from commuting, the increase in household responsibilities related time and work related time requirement leave lesser time for family and leisure.

If the organizations and employees agree on some ground rules (limiting the work hours; no phone calls or emails after say 6 pm), if they set up some boundary conditions respecting family and personal domain, the work from home can fulfil its promise of flexibility and increase the employees’ sense of well-being.

And it is also like a controlled experiment. Many organizations would realize that actually they can work as geographically distributed teams most of the time. In the process they can increase their employees’ flexibility and improve their work satisfaction levels. They can also save on rents or office space. So hopefully it gives organizations more motivation to continue with work from home even after the pandemic.

Professor Vidyanand Jha is a professor of Organizational Behavior at IIM Calcutta. He received the Young Case Writer Award from the Association of Indian Management Schools in 1998. In addition to teaching full time postgraduate and doctoral students, he also teaches a large number of executives. He is a consultant in the domain of organizational design and organization development. He is also a poet, fiction writer, critique and translator, writing in Maithili.


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