Dr. Aquil Busrai on HR Challenges in Hybrid Work Model

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Dr. Aquil Busrai on HR Challenges in Hybrid Work Model
The future will see many more dramatic changes. Await the entry of Work-from-Anywhere (WFA) and see how the work culture takes a somersault. Little before the pandemic, a movement was brewing within knowledge-work organizations.

Dr. Aquil Busrai CEO, aquil busrai consulting and former Executive Director HR, IBM, and Shell Malaysia on Hybrid Work Model

Dr. Aquil Busrai is a Gold Medallist from XLRI and has to his credit a Post Graduate Degree in Law, an Advanced Diploma in Training and Development, and a Ph.D. A university Rank Holder. He is the recipient of JM Kumarappa and Bharucha Gold Medals for academic excellence.

Dr. Busrai has had 45 plus years of experience in Industry. He has worked in various HR roles with Unilever in Kenya and India; Motorola in Asia Pacific countries; Shell in Malaysia and IBM in India. He is currently CEO of Aquil Busrai consulting. He is a Fellow of All India Management Association and Past National President of National HRD Network.

Dr. Busrai is a keen student of non-verbal communication and is authoring a book on ‘Body Language’.  He is an ardent wildlife enthusiast and a serious wildlife photographer.

Q. What is your view on WFH and Hybrid Workplace as the new disruptors?

WFH, ought not to be considered as a disruptor, instead, it emerged as a facilitator to cope with the crisis that Covid precipitated. It ensured that work continued, albeit waveringly, and did not come to a grounding halt. Its arrival on a larger canvas of the industry though was unexpected.

Working from home is not a new concept. IT and knowledge industry had this practice two decades ago, During Covid, other unlikely industries like hospitality, service, healthcare also got initiated to WFH. I recollect my days in IBM, around 2007-08. We were increasing our headcount by almost 2000+ employees each month.

Arranging office space was a challenge, so we introduced “Small-Office- Home-Office” (SOHO) with a tag line “We will pay you NOT to come to office J”  Positions that could deliver work from home were identified and these employees were provided extra allowance for Network, Printer etc. This was possible because of the nature of work of the organization.

This time round, WFH descended on many organizations that were not even remotely prepared for this methodology. Many scrambled to implement WFH, thinking it was only a question of providing a network for the laptop. Many missed the nuances of WFH and its implication on work measurement, productivity, and mental health of employees.

Some reputable and large organizations started announcing their permanent commitment to WFH or Hybrid work model. As expected, many of these organizations started backtracking on their promise very soon. As I write this, I saw the announcement by Google this morning that their Pay-Calculator has been programmed to cut salary of employees who opt to work from home. What will be the quantum of cut has not been disclosed, but this trend is significant to determine how much value employees put to WFH and Hybrid work. The value of any item is determined by the price people are willing to pay. Will employees take a deduction in pay and opt for WFH?

Unfortunately, WFH has very rapidly joined the lexicon of HR buzzword. Many HR professionals are vying to attract headlines by announcing how they are influencing their organizations to make WFH their USP. There is also increasing evidence that employees are considering WFH as an Entitlement. Both the trends are undesirable. In my opinion, WFH is only a means to an end. And must be seen through the prism of impact and benefit it has on business. If WFH is not feasible or not advantageous to the functioning of the business, it must be given a pass.

The future will see many more dramatic changes. Await the entry of Work-from-Anywhere (WFA) and see how the work culture takes a somersault. Little before the pandemic, a movement was brewing within knowledge-work organizations. Personal technology and Digital Connectivity had advanced so far and so fast that people had begun to ask, “Do we really need to be together, in an office, to do our work?”  The pandemic lockdown provided the answer. Co-location with colleagues was not necessary. Individuals, even teams can perform well while being geographically distributed.

How will WFA be any different? To get the answer, shut your eyes for a few moments and visualize yourself in knowledge industry – one of your highly talented youngsters is sitting under a palm-thatched shed, somewhere on the beach of Kovallam and scripting a critical algorithm for your upcoming major AI project. This is what WFA will look like! The future will be more exciting and uncertain than the past has ever been.

Q. What are the Advantages and Challenges of WFH and Hybrid working?

When WFH was introduced in organizations that had never envisioned its possibility, there was a novelty factor in the initial stages. In many homes, dining table and drawing room sofas became the favourite place to work. Casual home clothes, flexibility to take an impromptu break from work for a small household chore or even snacking. This was the initial phase of WFH. Things started changing gradually. Working hours got extended. Weekends and free time became blurred.

Often there was very little difference between a Monday morning and a Sunday morning. Added to this, came the matter of children studying from home. Not many had a spacious house with separate rooms to accommodate each member of the family. Family members began to adjust to each other’s needs and home became the hub.

Despite all these, there are certain advantages that WFH offers both to the employees and the organization.

  • The main advantage is the ability to manage Work-Life balance. With flexible schedule, employees could start and end their day as they choose, as long as their work was completed and led to strong outcomes. This control over the work schedule permitted some to look after ailing elders or simply spend more time with spouse and children.
  • For those staying in congested urban location, avoiding cumbersome commute and thus saving time and weariness was a major relief. This extra time, allowed many to  focus on priorities outside of work.
  • Another significant benefits of working from home is having access to a broader range of job opportunities that are not limited by geographic location. This can be especially helpful for those living n Tier-2 towns or even in rural locations, with limited opportunities.
  • Having no set job location means that fully remote workers could also travel and live as Digital Nomad while having a meaningful career. Though a full nomad lifestyle is currently not in vogue in India. But it is only a matter of time that this trend will catch on.
  • Remote work enables companies to embrace Diversity and Inclusion by hiring people from different socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds—which can be challenging to accomplish when recruiting is restricted to a specific location that not everyone prefers, or can afford, to live near the place of work. Remote work gives people with disabilities or even women, an opportunity to pursue their career without having concerns about commuting to work. This is an important inroad into improving diversity.
  • WFH has a positive impact on Environment. This benefit is not as far-fetched as it may sound. There is  increasing emphasis on Environment, Social and Governance responsibility (ESG)  of organisation. Reduction in use of vehicles will cumulatively have significant impact on environment. The world is already witnessing marked reduction in pollution during pandemic lockdown. By making environmentally sound choices—like opting to use less paper and monitoring their air conditioning and lighting—remote workers can have the same potential impact on air quality, as planting a forest of several hundred trees.
  • WFH has shown Increase in Productivity and Performance with fewer interruptions, a quieter workplace and less time-consuming meetings. Add in the absence of a commute, remote workers typically have more time which leads to increased productivity. When done right, remote work allows employees and companies to focus on what really matters – Performance.
  • Remote workers tend to be relatively happier, healthier, and more loyal too. There is evidence to show that WFH lowers stress, provides more time for hobbies and other interests also health care. This has high impact on employee retention.  Working remotely can give employees the time and environment needed to make healthy choices.

With all the advantages that can be attributed to WFH, one must be conscious of the downside also. Some of the drawbacks are:

  • Lack of community and teamwork- Man is by nature a social animal and can find it challenging if made to live alone, or for that matter, work alone. Despite audio-video platforms to connect, many employees feel the absence of personal interactions, of brainstorming an idea or simply feeling satisfied with the presence of team members.
  • Lack of Motivation– There are many sources of motivation, present by default in a workplace. A pat on the back by a senior, a complimentary comment by a peer, or even a simple appreciation in a meeting. All these external motivation have cumulative effect to boost morale for an individual. Unfortunately, in WFH this crucial element goes missing. One may argue that appreciation can be conveyed on a zoom call or through a mail but the non-verbal cues of appreciation are far bigger source of satisfaction.
  • Unmonitored Performance and Productivity– Working alone requires self-regulation and that itself can be a challenge for some individuals. There is often a tendency to take frequent breaks and procrastination can often spiral out of control, thereby impacting productivity and output.
  • Burnout– Flexible working hours lets employees structure their workdays according to their convenience. But, this can turn into a disadvantage for some employees. Some may neglect to clock out and thus lose differentiating between work-life and home-life. This invariably results in working unusually long hours that may result in burn out or jaded interest in work.
  • Unconscious Bias– It is absolutely critical to ensure that remote employees are treated the same as those in the office. Research by MIT indicates that “…remote workers may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office” due to ‘passive facetime’ i.e. remote workers will suffer simply because they are not seen. There is a risk  that being out of sight may result in being out of mind too.
  • Manufacturing and MSME Sector- So far we have touted the advantages of WFH. But one must remember that its applicability and success depends upon the type of industry as well as the affordability of each organisation. We normally get carried away by stories of success of big and famous organisations and forget that smaller organisations have their own constraints in terms of affordability.
  • By the nature of its work, manufacturing sector will have limited scope for implementing WFH. Bigger challenges will be for small organisations or medium sized operation where the cost of providing technical support for WFH may be a serious constraint.

Q. So what is the Future? And how do we create a successful Hybrid Work Model?

That WHF and Hybrid are here to stay is inevitable. Organisations will need to judiciously decide whether to opt for hybrid system. This decision should be strictly based on the context of the organisation. Clearly discounting what other companies are doing. Price of hasty decision will certainly be prohibitive.

Organisations will need to decide the basic reason for having an office itself and then rationally determine which set of employees will be allowed to work from home and who will be requested to attend workplace. Employees’ own expectations and aspiration will need to be kept in mind, though.

It will then be important to design the office with right technology. And also ascertain whether the organisation will be able to afford frequent upgradation of this technology.

The most critical aspect will be to ensure a system that evaluates remote workers fairly and without any hidden bias creeping in. This is easily said than done but will make or break the success of WFH.

The importance of ensuring equal treatment between those working in office and those WFH in Hybrid work model in terms of receiving information, accessing data, communication is also highly critical.

Integrating remote workers in the organization’s social fabric, providing them fair opportunities, and preserving their voice, will require a conscious effort both from the managerial and technological points of view.

In conclusion, WFH and Hybrid work models will drastically change the landscape of work. This will get more intricate with the advent of WFA. One thing is certain – we will not go back to so called “normal” that existed prior to 2019. The future will break the old template ruthlessly.

I liked a phrase Ashok Ramachandran, Group Executive President HR of Aditya Birla Group, used at a recent Webinar. He remarked that, in future “Work will not be a PLACE to go to, but what employees will DO” it will not matter from where or how. Ashok has beautifully summarised what the future of work will be, where WFH and Hybrid will hold sway.

Thank you, Aquil!

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