Describing 2020 as an unusual year would be an understatement. We lived through a little over three quarters of fear, uncertainty and confusion. The impact of Covid-19 has been universal though sadly some countries suffered a little more than others and some sections of our society paid a higher price than the rest. The very nature of the pandemic placed parts of the economy like manufacturing at a greater disadvantage than say IT where the work from home option helped retain some semblance of normalcy within weeks of going into a national lockdown announced in the third week of March this year.
With safety concerns overriding all others, human resource (HR) as a function came under the spotlight with little time or room to accommodate any failure. The unprecedented situation narrowed our focus on three challenges – a) how do we keep people safe, b) how quickly can we adapt to the new ways of working, and c) how can we sustain the gains we have managed since the lockdown.
To a very large extent we managed to address the first two challenges through mandatory social distancing backed by the option to work from home and an unprecedented reliance on technology tools. As we get ready to step into the new year in the next few weeks, it is now time to focus our attention on the way forward, which is essentially taking stock of what we have learned and gained in the past few months and a few things we can do differently from an HR perspective.
The work from home option combined with the renewed pressure to keep costs under check has created a new opportunity for businesses to take a hard look at fixed costs, particularly real estate costs. Recent surveys conducted in the midst of the lockdown have shown a sharp drop in demand for offices and record level surrendering of office spaces, particularly in large cities like Bengaluru, home for the country’s tech giants.
In the post-Covid environment when it is safe to return to work, many organisations, particularly within the manufacturing sector are likely to retain some of the gains recorded by cutting their spending on office spaces. We are therefore likely to see the emergence of a new hybrid model where a large section of the white-collared workforce can continue to work from home even when it is safe to return to offices. This new opportunity will also present its own set of challenges in terms of how we manage to keep the cohesive force of teams intact, but we will come to that in a bit.
The restrictions forced on us by Covid have also helped businesses tap into skills pool that has not been fully explored before. Leaders and managers are today more concerned about the outcome of work and less about where employees are located. In many ways this an unprecedented opportunity not just to bring in skills that were not fully exploited earlier but also make a stronger case for greater diversity and inclusion in the workforce.
The ability and willingness to extend the work from home policy in the post Covid environment will no doubt come with its own set of challenges. For example, in the virtual work environment, we may unconsciously shut out some people or points of view which is more than anything else, a leadership challenge not just at the top-level but across the organisation. The best way to overcome this is to increase our patience and empathy and provide a platform for everyone and make sure every voice is heard in virtual meetings.
Further, for the new hybrid model to work effectively, leaders and managers have to become more mindful of the physical and mental health of team members. Providing good working conditions within the confines of one’s home such as ergonomically designed chairs, regular breaks from work, additional support to create a better work-life balance etc. will have become part of the new normal. There will also be a greater need to keep informal communication channels open by consciously allocating some part of our worktime to check on colleagues’ welfare.
By all accounts the recovery from Covid is just around the corner. At least four vaccines have been developed that are showing promising results and preparations are well underway for mass national level inoculation too. Renewed optimism about the future, a stronger resolve to rise above challenges and willingness to pull everyone alone will ensure we step into a very promising 2021.