Since the COVID-19 outbreak, a majority of Indian professionals have shown interest in opting for a more permanent remote work plan. Initially motivated by health and workplace safety concerns, now technology tools and flexible work arrangements have convinced many professionals about the positive aspects of working in an all-digital environment.
Going into 2021, with the status of the COVID-19 vaccine in India still unclear and roll-out likely to last the year, human resource managers must be better prepared to navigate extended remote work arrangements and increasing staff interest in continuing telecommuting even when the pandemic subsides. This may require making necessary changes to company budgets and IT organization, amending company do’s and don’ts, and incorporating some of the lessons learnt and pain points revealed during this year’s almost overnight transition from the office workplace to work-from-home.
Managing an uneasy transition
The Indian workforce was largely unfamiliar with the concept of work-from-home at the beginning of the year when they had to make the transition en masse due to the national lockdown. Moreover, even if it was allowed as part of a flexible HR policy, the teleworking arrangement was not preferred by upper management in several cases due to concerns over employee productivity and managing sensitive project timelines, besides breaks in communication.
However, during the course of what has been a very long year filled with many unknowns, managers and employees have learnt to compromise and work together, all the while embracing new technology platforms and familiarizing themselves with troubleshooting in the digital workplace.
On their part, companies should take note of their staff and management experiences during this period to strengthen their business continuity plans, retain top talent, and update work objectives and HR guidelines if required. Additionally, they need to examine compliance related to cyber security regulations and exposure to risk of malicious attacks, such as via phishing.
Simplified OSP guidelines notified
Meanwhile, the Indian government amended key regulations to remove hurdles that blocked business processing outsourcing and IT-enabled services firms from implementing long-term remote work / work-from-home. This was a key demand of the country’s IT industry lobby, NASSCOM. The Ministry of Communications notified on November 5, 2020 that the government had “drastically simplified the Other Service Provider (OSP) guidelines of the Department of Telecom.”
In this article, we highlight some top tips for businesses to facilitate smoother operations in 2021 while implementing prolonged remote work arrangements.
1. Adapting remote work guidelines to reflect new challenges
This year, companies in India, besides public utilities and those considered essential services, were forced to transition into a teleworking set up to minimize public movement and contain the spread of the pandemic. While some businesses may have been steps ahead due to the nature of their work, for most employers this transition has been complicated. Unused to daily in-person meetings or direct supervision of team tasks, managers have had to quickly navigate the new office normal in the online workplace.
Most companies have been able to organize themselves logistically due to internet-based tools. Irrespective of where they are based, employees are expected to interact with each other through chat-based platforms, video conference calls, webinars, and other forms of scheduled virtual engagement. While this is pretty much intuitive stuff, difficulties in the transition to a constant online workplace is often due to the less-than-favorable environment at home or poor internet connections. Overcoming these, companies have also had to navigate worker fatigue and motivate staff to pay attention to their work-life balance. This has led to reminders that a remote work strategy should not convert into an all-work strategy, which will impact employee productivity and personal well-being in the long-term.
For example, DHL Express, the courier company, has framed guidelines that dictate their own work-from-home norms and have made it available to all their 3,200 employees. The guide speaks of a pomodero technique, which suggests that doing a task in-between breaks is better than trying to complete it in one sitting. An employee should work for 25 minutes, then take a break for five minutes and so on. Employees reported that this helped them focus better.
2. Finding the right technological tools
Teleworking or remote work will look different in each industry. While some require direct client meetings and other interaction, many others do not or are back-office work. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several existing and new software applications have enabled virtual and client interactions. Features such as multiple meeting capacity, chat, file sharing, audio recording, video recording, etc. have enabled satisfactory outcomes. Nevertheless, depending on the industry and project, choosing the right technology tools – cloud and hybrid cloud-based solutions – is at the core of establishing a successful remote work strategy.
Taking Office365 as an example, this platform provides a wide range of functionalities to support remote working as a by-product of its overall design. SharePoint Online (SPO) is a cloud-based tool to store and control corporate information, which can be utilized across many other applications.
Microsoft Teams is a communication and collaboration tool that synchronizes with SPO to deliver a wide range of functionality to users. MS Teams provides a stable option for conference calling between colleagues based both inside and outside the country. Other options, such as Slack, have also seen a big surge in popularity.
What these services essentially do is provide a set of corporate communication and collaboration tools that directly links to the company’s global directory but that does not rely on data sitting within physical company servers. These cloud-based solutions can be more easily accessed anywhere, anytime by employees.
While the COVID-19 outbreak poses a short-term challenge for businesses, in the medium- to long-term it may actually prove to be the catalyst for companies to adopt the remote working concept, supplemented by the wide range of technology tools already available to increase worker efficiency.
Below is a table indicating the advantages of popularly used online applications while teleworking in India.
3. Daily check-ins, establishing a communication strategy
Communication is the basis of all activities. It is extremely important to create a common digital platform that everyone can use, to avoid the confusion of using many platforms, as well as the overuse of e-mail. While e-mail may have previously been preferred, newer applications, such as MS Teams, enable the creation of private channels and group and personal chats that are linked to the company’s global directory and official email account. This form of communication is more flexible and informal and can lead to more effective problem solving due to increased clarity and information-based resolution, without needing to hop onto a call. For example, one employee can privately message another to clear doubts and a team can set up their own group discussion. An established routine of sending a mail at the beginning of a new week describing the work to be done, in addition, helps in making sure everyone is up to speed with their team goals and availability of colleagues.
4. Work-life balance
One of the biggest concerns with regard to a work-from-home / remote work arrangement is having to manage the professional life inside less formal or organized environments, such as one’s home. The time previously devoted to taking care of household tasks may spillover into increased work hours. The result is often faster burn out, particularly among young parents who are balancing work and household management, juggling professional deadlines and child care (especially as educational institutions have also switched to remote learning).
Companies should factor in such concerns with respect to the physical and emotional health of their employees. While travel may not be possible, the option of taking necessary days off, even for mental health reasons, should be encouraged and can be planned for.
Investing in staff well-being is necessary to ensure smooth workflows, engender trust in the organization and its essential objectives, and promote team building. For example, it should be a common practice to inquire about everyone’s well-being at the start of calls or meetings or check-in with employees who may be having a harder time than usual. Further, such communication is necessary in case of any medical emergency – as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic – where employees are forced to seek sudden and extended sick leaves for personal recovery or to take care of dependents.
Carrying forward with the DHL example, the firm has begun putting its employees in touch with various doctors and even fixing their appointments. In terms of mental health, an employee assistance program has been organized wherein a team of counselors work individually with each employee, as need be, to find solutions to any problems. Employees have reported that these practices have helped them significantly.
Besides the availability of support, when possible, companies should allow their employees to figure out a system of time management that works for them. This flexibility caters to individual work styles. Each employee may have a different way of doing things for which they should not be judged – if they are completing their tasks on time or as per project deadlines, both internal and external. The benefits of flexible scheduling has a relaxing effect, which leads to increased productivity. The employee will know how best they need to prioritize respective formal and informal tasks to ensure their work commitments are met and without additional stress.
5. Budget for teleworking
In particular, IT industries must be invested in learning about their employees and their workspace and organization culture. The economic impact of COVID-19 has diminished peoples’ ability to spend. To give an example, some cannot afford laptop repair let alone having to buy new systems or software for work. Others face connectivity issues further worsened by power cuts, particularly in densely populated areas like Hyderabad and Chennai, or during extreme weather.
Employers in the IT industry have taken steps to help alleviate such grievances. They have provided laptops and gadgets, tried to improve connectivity by using virtual private networks (VPNs), and allowed concessions in periods of extremely slow Wi-Fi.
GlobalLogic, a digital product engineering services company has responded to the situation well by enforcing their own business continuity plan. This plan involves a communication strategy of maintaining regular contact with employees, ensuring that they feel taken care of, inviting industry experts to speak at sessions to boost morale and initiating cross-learning programs as a way to both educate and entertain. Investing in such programs will likely be more necessary as we enter a new year of pandemic uncertainty.
6. Company network security and staff training
Finally, companies must invest in their cyber security infrastructure / company network security.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak necessitated remote work arrangements at an unprecedented scale worldwide, there has been an uptick in phishing attacks and security breaches. With hundreds of millions of people working remotely worldwide, hackers and cyber criminals have tried to take advantage of employees working on personal unprotected networks and devices lacking adequate security.
In addition to standard phishing emails that impersonate clients and coworkers, among others, hackers have impersonated government bodies and even the World Health Organization, purporting to be conveying emergency health information.
Accordingly, businesses are recommended to conduct a network security audit to assess levels of vulnerability and offer fixes for lapses that might emerge.
In addition to analyzing the technical aspects of network security, a security audit can also asses a firm’s IT policies surrounding employee behavior and best practices. Network security breaches often occur not due to inadequate technology, but because employees are not trained in proper security protocols or because the firm lacks standard policies to guide employee behavior online. This is also an area that HR managers will need to focus on during extended remote work in 2021.