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Company culture is the catalyst for engagement, productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and retention, and this can happen best through the workplace experience… Read on

On a week’s vacation in Ladakh, my colleague Amruta and I had an interesting encounter when we climbed up the famous Lamayuru Monastery. A young woman spotted us and asked if we could give her a lift to wherever we were going next. On the ride to our next point, we chatted with her and it turned out that she was from Odisha, employed with a famous technology firm in Bengaluru and had been in Ladakh for over three weeks. Responding to my query about her vacation, she didn’t bat an eyelash when she replied, “No, I am working from home but my boss doesn’t need to know where I am.”

This should not surprise many business leaders who have been tearing their hair out at the unpredictability of folks who have been working from home, working from anywhere, from their hometowns with poor connectivity and very often as the young lady here, just goofing off and occasionally logging on to their computers. In our own 5F World group of companies, we realised very early that allowing people to work from rural or semi-urban areas caused huge disruptions with call drops, home, and family pressures and it was a relief to us as well as most of our three hundred associates when we opened our offices many months back and gave people the chance to be again in a collaborative work environment.

The problems of prolonged work from home have been highlighted in a column in TechRepublic which quotes an American Chief People Officer highlighting the fact that company culture is the catalyst for engagement, productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and retention and this can happen best through the workplace experience. Inclusion and equity must be reimagined when some proportion of teams come to the office and others stay at home. Interestingly, the article quotes another US HR Chief as saying that hybrid work arrangements can seriously damage work culture and create the worst of both worlds. Frustration and isolation issues are rampant among long-term home workers and there is a real danger of both managers and employees losing out on productivity and job satisfaction.

The proponents of long-term working from home will, of course, point to the excellent performance of many medium and large firms in the sector particularly in terms of profitability, which has been maximised by letting go of office space and incurring much lower costs on transportation, canteen facilities, office and campus administration. But as a very worried US CTO pointed out to me in a recent conversation, it is impossible to get design and complex architecture work done without the occasional huddles in the office and he also revealed that their reliance on Latin American destinations like Mexico and offshore locations in China and the Philippines were rising fast in comparison with India. Certainly not a good omen for the future of the industry we are so proud of.

It is not just in the IT sector, other organisations too, particularly those who inducted new talent this summer are worried that the employee connect is diminishing and creating fissures in productivity and job satisfaction. First-time employees who have no opportunity to enjoy the culture of work and the occasional meetings over lunch or coffee are just not getting integrated into the culture and values of the organisation. Yes, of course, social distancing and mask discipline cannot be overlooked but let cost reduction not be the reason to make working from home the norm for office environments.

The problem is even more evident in college and school students who are missing one critical element of university life, the active participation in class and the after-class participation where most learning happens. A young colleague complained recently that her young son was more interested in commenting on what the teacher was wearing than what she was teaching in class and the ability to go on mute or have the video off, and blaming on a technology glitch is creating a huge discontinuity in learning processes.

Innovative digital leaders like Globant in the US have used artificial intelligence to match two colleagues in the office and get them into an impromptu office conversation on a Friday afternoon, hoping to re-create the idea sparks and innovation that have resulted in the past from these chance encounters. But nothing can quite match the face to face and group conversations that we have all rejoiced in and learnt so much from-in schools, colleges, corporate and social life.

Am I then advocating a complete return to “business as usual” and will I lead by example and stop the thirty-seven WhatsApp and Zoom groups we have set up in the last year for singing, sharing research on Vedanta and Quantum Mechanics and enabling multiple CEOs to participate in webinars and discussions on topics of common interest from all over the world? Certainly not, but where work needs creativity and group collaboration, let’s get back to work or at least to scheduled office or coffee shop meetings and be judicious in advocating physical distancing as a long-term panacea for all ills, including cost. As Peter Drucker rightly said, “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”. Can we make sure that Covid does not eat culture and individual morale for lunch?