Work from home – The way ahead

The onset of this unfortunate pandemic has thrown normal life into turmoil. Very quickly it has forced us to change the way we work. Lockdowns have pushed us to rethink and rewire ourselves to the ever-changing scenario.

I’ve read several articles of late that talk about how to adjust to this new situation. I’m frankly surprised by the complete lack of understanding that work from home is not as simple an exercise as it is being made out to be. At the very core of my counter argument is that is not a situation where all other things are constant with the only change that you are no longer going to work. So let’s stop over simplifying the situation. It’s very easy to give advice that sounds intelligent, however it’s the usefulness and practicality of the suggestion that should be counted. Maintain the same daily routine as regards your personal and professional time, get up, dress up, schedule and time-box your activities, devote time to work as you would in the office and make sure you are spending enough time with your family etc. etc. all this sounds very good, but I believe, is naïve and immature advice at best. It makes a huge assumption in that you have all your existing support structures, groups and individuals available to you as they were before the onset of this situation. None of these articles are talking about what exactly it is that you should be doing to adapt. Also, while the above approach may work for countries where self-sufficiency is the norm in life, we in India have another factor that cannot be overlooked.

But first, we need to understand this, and understand it well, we’re in the midst of a global crisis, it’s not local, it’s not isolated and it’s not going away anytime soon, so let’s get with it. And this is as much for organisations as it is for individuals –if you expect work to go on and your teams to deliver just as before, by ‘simply switching’ to the WFH model, you really need to wake up and extract your head from inside whichever dark hole it is stuck. And here is why –it’s not easy to manage work and home together, without the support of those that make it possible under normal circumstances.

Take a look at the table below. I’ve listed some very basic and familiar definitions. Try to identify which defines your personal situation.

Personal Status Living with Your Parents Children Others Spouse / Partner is: Your Day Help
Single Self Both, self-sufficient Baby Sibling(s) Homemaker Nanny
Spouse / Partner Friend(s) Old, need some help Babies Pet(s) Professional Cook
Artist(s) Sick, bed-ridden Pre-teen(s) Dependent(s) Freelancer Cleaner
Partner / Spouse Single, self-sufficient Teen(s) In Healthcare
Parent(s) Single, needs help Independent In critical service sector
Family Same / different city

I may have left out something but nevertheless, I’m sure each one of us can identify the combination that best describes our status. For e.g. Single, living alone, have old parents living in another city who need some help, independent children, living with siblings, a pet, a cook and a cleaner who visits every day. There will be different combinations for different people. The purpose of this table is to help us gauge the support structures (we take for granted) and responsibilities we have in life and how each of these will respectively impact our personal situation.

A big advantage of family / co-living over living alone is that tasks can be shared by family members, one person cooks, the other does the dishes, someone cleans, walks the dog etc. etc. Rotate the chores and you have enough scope for sanity to prevail on the home front, or at least provide a much longer fuse before things blow up. But, what if you and your partner are both working professionals? What if you have babies that need care? What if your parents are living with you and one of them, God forbid, needs assistance? Now we have to re-evaluate and seriously think about our daily routines. Yes, not our plans for the future, not our financial aspirations, our objectives, our vision and mission statements, our deliverables at work BUT, how are we just going to get through each day? Do I have enough to eat? Should I step out for groceries and risk bringing the infection back into the house to my aged folks, my children, my partner? Do I have enough money on me, and in the bank? What if I need to take someone to the hospital? What happens if I catch the damn bug!!! What then? None of these questions is even remotely close to, when do I have to deliver my project. That’s, in-fact the last thing on anyone’s mind.

I mentioned earlier that in India, we have another factor that cannot be overlooked and that is, most of us have some dependence on outsiders for help such as maids, cooks / food service, cleaners, domestic help etc., to take care of our life at home. These are some of the conveniences that even common folk here have access to. The cook and maid may come in after we leave for work, and by the evening, dinner is ready, house is clean and laundry washed and hung to dry. Most professionals also rely on packed lunch services that deliver meals to their desks at work. Some professionals cook and do their own laundry, but in general, especially in the larger cities and larger studios, there exists a huge workforce that is living in rented accommodation, not completely self-sufficient and largely dependent on behind-the-scenes help. They have never been exposed to a life that demands self-sufficiency. It is this category of people today that are the hardest hit and in-turn will affect the organisations where they work.

Living alone for the past many years and working from home I can say this with authority, a good working day includes repeatedly answering the doorbell, cooking, feeding the pet, walking it twice a day (my cat saves me the bother, but those with dogs know this), cleaning, buying essentials, phone-calls and attending to all and sundry issues. All these take time away from the work-seat and No! None of these can be deferred. While in the earlier world, these may have sounded frivolous and unimportant to many, anyone who has stayed at home without domestic help to take care of these needs will be nodding their head in agreement as they read this.

Work from home is easier said than done. Most freelancers are able to do it because we have devised our own timetables, schedules and workarounds that factor in these needs. Working on a project-to-project basis, freelancers own their time, which means that experience enables us to build and auto-follow a personal plan of action for our days. However, for a professional who has never done it before, trying to make them fit their 9-to-5 schedule into a WFH scenario, is akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole. After the initial euphoria dies down and the backslapping for ‘exemplary transitions by the workforce’ is over, the ground reality will sink in.

If this turns out to be a long lockdown, which I personally feel, common sense demands, I think there are 2-ways the WFH scenarios can play out.

  1. Teams will adjust, with some effort, leaders will get less uptight and understand the larger picture, empathy will take root and in-general work will keep getting delivered. Everyone will understand and appreciate the effort being put in and even though friction will not disappear, it will not last long as there will be a newfound sense of common purpose. What will also prevail is much needed respect for teamwork with clear, concise, effective communication. Production teams will finally get due recognition and over time, artists may actually enjoy the WFH model which in-turn will lead to more success.

–OR–

  1. Frustrations will increase as confusion mounts, lack of clarity and not going over and beyond duty will lead to teams breaking apart, leaders will rise to their levels of incompetence and lose respect from their juniors, projects will be delayed, confidence will run low as pressures increase on a day-to-day basis. Blame games, bickering and arguments will ensure that things will spiral out of hand and left unchecked the project will reach a dead-end. There will be loss of business, money, reputation, relations and the worst case —a complete shutdown with retrenchments.

There is a third way as well, somewhere in between, so it’s not all bang or bust, but a half-baked solution frankly causes more disruption than it is worth. So what then is the answer? Well, unfortunately, is no simple response and each organisation / individual will have to work hard, adapt and adjust to find their way. A lot depends on how leaders handle their teams in these trying times. EMPATHY is your go to mantra. When in office, you really can afford to separate the personal from the official, however in this new scenario, leaders will have to take into account the fact that people may not be on their beck and call. Remember, this is no longer a captive workforce and it isn’t in your controlled arena anymore. Between ringing doorbells, barking dogs, moody cats, cranky babies, nappy changes, frayed nerves, pressure cooker whistles, and demands for attention from the young, old, sick and incapacitated, you may just find online video meetings often getting disrupted and also at times very interesting.

But all is not lost, post reading those articles I mentioned earlier, and not finding any semblance of useable advice or call to action, I’ve collated some thoughts that may just help you reorient your teams to the new situation. Among the many things that you need to pay attention to, I believe these are some to get you started with your people:

  1. Explain your official position clearly, what you need to do and how you plan to do it. This means discuss options with your core staff and make a practical plan on paper before you address your teams.
  2. It’s ok if the plan is not watertight; in fact it needs to be flexible and dynamic to factor in the ever-changing scenarios. Do not make better the enemy of good at this point.
  3. Prioritise individual safety and adherence to Govt. directives above all else, at all times.
  4. Give clarity on what is expected from each person, make sure they understand what you are saying to them and asking of them.
  5. Maintain daily communication with updates and progress on projects.
  6. Ensure proactive intervention on the job –don’t wait for people to call for help, reach out.
  7. Ensure flexi-schedules –recognise that one-size-fits-all will not work in this scenario.
  8. Provide active handholding, guidance and supervision on projects and problems.
  9. Discuss and assess how much each member of your team can comfortably deliver. Monitor progress with regular follow-up and contact. Increase targets only if performance matches commitments.
  10. Step up and help people –more than you normally do– to prioritise, schedule and plan. Not everyone has the ability to do these tasks effectively, and many more will crumble under pressure. So help relieve the stress where you can.
  11. Actively demonstrate empathy, understanding, trust, sincerity and teamwork.
  12. Demonstrate respect –everyone has his or her own respective issues at home, accept this as a fact / current reality, try to work around them.
  13. Do not threaten and / or intimidate to get favorable action, most people are in a survival mode; don’t add to their stress.
  14. Forget penalties for the moment –instead rewire and reallocate– focus on getting the job done.
  15. Give second, third chances —as many as will get the job done. This is the time to really pull out your people, time, communication, negotiation and management skills.
  16. Separate issues from personalities –get to the core issue, forget the personality behind it. These are stressful times. Expecting a standard common response will be counter productive.
  17. Don’t waste time arguing or trying to fix blame. The first rule of crisis management is to stop the bleed. Focus on what is the way forward, get people on board and get moving. Dissection, introspection and punches come later.
  18. Keep expectations real ­–don’t over commit, over estimate or be over confident.
  19. Recognise and accept that some in your team may not have the luxury of a personal workspace or high-speed internet connectivity. Help to find ways to get them online, or to help remotely.
  20. Keep your clients in the loop. Forget the ‘need to know’ policy, I’m personally averse to this shortsighted approach even on a good day. Share information and updates on progress as well as on impending screw-ups. Forewarned is forearmed.
  21. Ensure financial stability —share, trim across the board (more from the top but none from the bottom) and spread the bread.
  22. Go easy on evaluations of work performance for now —this is a new space for everyone. Some will be able to adapt and deliver, while some may struggle due to other factors as mentioned above. Do not fault them for it.
  23. Do not spread false hope and foolish optimism that it is business as usual. IT IS NOT. Showing genuine concern about family, sharing, caring and in general being a sensitive human being will only help. So, if needed, get in touch with your heart again and feel. People are scared, confused and facing uncertainty. Stand up and lead.
  24. If people are working off their personal workstations from home without remote access to office systems, make sure all data is stored on the cloud and updated regularly.
  25. Assume people who are working on your projects will fall sick. You should have access to their data at all times. Centralise the storage till access is not available to office storage and servers. Once online, it will be easier to shift the data to your office systems.
  26. Plan for a backward transition, whenever it happens, make sure it is seamless and with as little disruption as possible. Just because you were able to firefight once doesn’t mean you need to do it again. Start planning now.
  27. It’s always a good idea to have a Standard Operating Protocol document for your studio. No matter what your size, it always pays to plan and have a documented method in place for emergencies. Avoid the ostrich (head-in-the-sand) syndrome.
  28. Don’t forget the mailroom. Keep in touch with all the administration, housekeeping, and ancillary support staff. They need you to back them more than ever.
  29. Show that you care, through actions. This is no time for empty words. Do right by your people and your organisation. Play fair, play honest and play with integrity.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe these will help in the transition if everyone across the board should follow these points.

It’s a fact that extreme adversity reveals the true character of people. This situation is unfortunate, but look at it as a mega opportunity to take a step back and pull your organisation together towards its core values, to center it towards a common objective and instill a sense of pride in your real assets –your people. It may also be an opportunity to separate the driftwood from the performers.

A word about the impending economic fallout being predicted by several industry leaders and the heads of various international organisations, honestly, even though these people may be stating the obvious, does common sense really take flight so easily? At a time when people are struggling to survive, do we really need to harp about how we are headed into the worst recession ever? Ok, let’s assume we are, what is your solution? Removing the lockdown is not the answer and everyone knows it. So maybe it would be better to hold your peace and use this time to talk about immediate solutions. This is not the time for sensational headlines and so it will help if the opinions are at least packaged appropriately. Let soothsayers predict the future, we have enough of them in this country. Also as educated people, let’s not ignore the resilience of mankind. We are a very stubborn species, mostly causing our own downfall, but history is witness to the fact then when required, it is this same stubbornness to not give up that has saved the day. This is not the first and maybe, will not be the last time we see ourselves in such a situation.

Money and technology by themselves are not going to give us a solution to this virus. Ultimately, it will be people who will find a solution. So above all, keep faith in humanity.