Two years ago, while talking to the students at LUMS, I predicted that companies would soon consider asking their employees to work from anywhere. Covid-19 saw this prediction land upon us like an unwelcome asteroid - we did not have much time to plan or be mentally ready to adapt. Pakistan, like the rest of the world, plunged into home offices, enhanced 4G devices and struggled to end the workday. Almost everyone speaks of Covid-19 fatigue and the way the workday bleeds into home-life.
Although my work from anywhere prediction was spot on, I still struggled to relate to the advocates of a permanent Work From Home (WFH) situation. One of the challenges of carrying out an objective assessment of WFH is the fact that it gained prominence during Covid-19. Drawing the 'new normal' sketch during an "unusually abnormal" situation carries the inherent risk of over solving the problem. So while the escape from the drudgery of long commutes, the lure of a healthier work life balance and the opportunity to cut rental office costs can make us instantly fall in love with WFH, the real world is a lot more complicated. People are victims of their ephemeral and often contradictory emotions. Unsurprisingly then that in the Pakistani business community and corporate world, there is a loud cry for Return To Office (RTO) and a request to press pause on the comforts of WFH.
Jazz has been in the eye of the Covid-19 storm from the start. We were the first to use all our platforms to create mass awareness about the virus while redirecting our marketing spend to one of the most substantial national relief packages in Pakistan’s history. We worked tirelessly with governments to provide essential communication, internet and banking services and helped identify lockdown areas. Our timely WFH decision was taken even before the government announced lockdowns. It is from the perspective of that chaos and agility that I would like to share what the data has taught us. The sample is representative, as we surveyed about 3,000 professional staff in their WFH mode for over 100 days.
1. The Office Is Here to Stay
The Home Office is… err a home. The poster child WFH executive sits comfortably in an ergonomic chair with a lovely bookshelf in the background (presumably in a soundproof study). The desk is well-appointed and with a gigabit broadband connection. The un-photoshopped Pakistani reality is of an extensive joint family system, where many lay claims to the communal TV lounge or the dining table. Patchy internet connections, shared by 'study from home' kids and unannounced load shedding are the norm. With kids running around the house and family members having loud conversations around morning talk shows, it becomes difficult to concentrate on a Zoom call, Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. As a result, employees (through our in-house surveys) almost pleaded for a return to how things were. It was no surprise that in the absence of a supportive ecosystem, many wanted to escape their homes for a few hours and be in a more intellectually stimulating, calming, and productive work environment. I too find myself being nostalgic for the pumped-up energy of an open-floor workplace.
2. Socialise From Work (SFW) Has Its Own Value
I confess that this acronym SFW didn't exist 10 minutes ago – I invented it to highlight the unique improvement in the quality of life that stems from being together with co-workers. Many colleagues become friends we socialise with during working hours and lunch breaks. We also develop friendships with people who co-worked on complex projects with us. The office is like a modern community centre where we discard our social traditions. With the office comes the cafeteria, gym, picnics, cricket loyalties and vibrant politically charged discussions. The benefits of spontaneous interaction and ideation cannot be easily quantified into productivity Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), but its appeal cannot be overlooked either. I have been far more tuned into a 360-degree view of my organisation while grabbing lunch at the cafeteria than I ever did in an online Town Hall with the company.
3. We Are Not Ready For Blurred Boundaries (Yet)
People are creatures of habit. Diversity in our routines gives us focus and clarity. The 'work, eat, sleep' pattern was repeated ad nauseam during the lockdown and not because employees did not have anything else to do, but because the workload kept expanding in volume and intensity. Obsessive managers created work, created business and misconstrued activity with achievement. However, once Covid-19 subsides and a more representative WFH emerges, I believe employees will find a balance between routine and flexibility. In addition to blurred boundaries, our sensitivity towards work hours waned rather than increased. Working women especially found it harder to look after children who were also studying from home and found themselves struggling to cope with an overburdened care giving role. In many cases working women do what the UN calls the "triple duty" – of work, home and the emotional load of juggling both. Jazz recognised this challenge and we tried to accommodate more innovative ways to allow more downtime for working moms, tech support and more social check-ins for their mental and emotional wellbeing. Our resident mental health practitioner and doctor are both women professionals who make women at Jazz feel more comfortable seeking advice on work-life integration.
4. The Office Will Change
Employees value flexibility and safety and in future they s will value empathy even more. To create a high performance culture, you must first belong and this sense of belonging comes when employees feel that their wellbeing and safety are paramount in times of crisis. Employers who offer physical security and psychological safety will be the ones winning the war on talent.WFH killed the dead hours in our calendar and made us realise the futile obsession with time cards and face time. Employees started enjoying the freedom and downtime which was lost during the rush hour, struggling to be on time for the morning meeting and dressing up to look presentable. There were more hours in the day and the time saved now could be converted into personal time. Flex hours, flex days, flex locations will not be additional benefits but an integral and standard part of any employment contract.
5. Extreme Digitisation Will Be A New Reality
Almost every business today intuitively knows the importance of ‘digital transformation’ but fails to set ambitious goals about ‘what success looks like’ - primarily out of fear that their Luddite middle managers will struggle with change or technology. For example, at Jazz we have always known that going paperless is environmentally responsible, yet we still fell short. Before Covid-19, our less-paper initiative helped us reduce the need for printouts by 80%. Under Covid-19, we were forced to re-engineer our processes, use new digital productivity tools and we eventually eliminated printouts by another 15%. More goals are met when necessity demands it; our meetings have become productive because there is a start and stop time on video calls; people need to join on time, be concise in their communication and then press the mute button. We are forced to plan our days, hours and minutes better. Admittedly the meetings have turned a bit boring, but productive and functional nonetheless!
6. Frequent And Authentic Communication
A crisis brings out the best and worst in all of us. At Jazz, we revved up communications – frequent, top-down and bottom-up and they were microscopically authentic. I shared my apprehensions and challenges (including my bout with Covid-19). We became more human and more humane. Employees responded well to the bi-weekly Town Halls on our Facebook@Workplace app, which gave them an update on operational performance and tips on how to deal with the crises and the stress it caused. Most importantly, managers and local staff shared their experiences, voiced concerns, criticised policies, appreciated the benefits and asked questions when they experienced personal and professional bottlenecks. Companies that succeed in crises rely on honest (and at times) uncomfortable conversations. This will be more important in the future as almost every organisation is up for an inevitable organic or external crisis.
7. Work Anytime From Anywhere (WAFA)
Ultimately, employers hire people to do work. And the measure (even vaguely defined) is productivity – and the perennial question is how to continually enhance the productivity of our employees. Job satisfaction, perks, comfortable working environments, work-life balance, are all tools and descriptors of productivity. WFH has shown us that we can offer employees flexibility and convenience without the need to over-supervise. If you have faith in the person you have hired, trust them to perform even when you are not looking. The future of work will espouse the best of both WFH and the need for physical proximity with other knowledge workers. The focus will be on delivery of tasks and results. Our location and work hours will be far less relevant than our output. The office will not be limited to a specific location; it will be a mindset, a place where we think and act in ways that contribute to the well being of the employer who makes a monthly wire transfer to our banks. And while the building and our presence in it will become less relevant, its importance is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Aamir Ibrahim is CEO, Jazz. He can be reached at @aamir_ibrahim01