No amount of artificial intelligence and simulated bonding sessions can substitute the real warmth of a conversation over coffee in the workplace, more so for women employees who have been doubly burdened at home
As we approach the first anniversary of the strike of Covid-19 and are beginning to dare to hope that a return to normalcy is not more than a few months (or even weeks) away, it may be appropriate to take stock of the many damages caused by the pandemic and its impact on both the present and future of life and work!
The most obvious impacts have of course been the terrible loss of human life and livelihoods, with job losses as well as negation of job opportunities creating worries for the employed as well as all the graduating batches, even from some of our premier institutions in the country. With demand just limping back in most sectors, employers are naturally quite circumspect in their hiring decisions and even increments which were either deferred or minimized in 2020 could be the victim of further rationalization and frugality this year. This is not a healthy outlook for existing and new employees and aspirants.
And in a country where there have already been deep chasms at various levels premier engineering and management institutions vis-à-vis the more ordinary ones, employees in urban locations in comparison to smaller cities and of course, conscious or unconscious gender and other biases, the ongoing impact of the pandemic has been to widen these chasms and potentially create issues that may take more than a year to recover from. Working from home, either voluntarily or as a part of organization policy has also forced many issues that were beneath the surface to come to the fore and creating issues for many loyal and hard-working members of the workforce.
This is not a problem that is exclusive to India. The “work from home” compulsion has created bigger issues for women than for men. A survey of 177 women working in tech companies in the UK found that more than half (57%) felt that the pandemic had led to a regression of gender roles, with a third of these (34%) believing they had been set back by as many as 10 to 20 years. The problems are being reported by women trying to get new jobs, re-enter jobs after a career gap and even those trying to start entrepreneurial ventures.
Progressive managements have been conscious of the issues of prolonged “Work from Home” and have taken steps to ensure that avoidable chasms are not created
What were the reasons reported by the “AccelerateHER” survey conducted in that country? The most obvious is the need to shoulder additional household burdens because of their physical presence at home, with young children themselves suffering from the boredom of prolonged school closures seeking more attention from a home working parent. Even in the US, the Department of Labor data indicates that over 2.5 million have left their job roles compared to 1.8 million men. Even career advancement, including senior management promotions and appointment to Board positions has become more difficult for women.
Progressive managements have been conscious of the issues of prolonged “Work from Home” and have taken steps to ensure that avoidable chasms are not created. Our own organizations have acceded to the requests of many of our young employees particularly women, to redesign the offices for adequate social distancing and enable them to return to work right from the second half of 2020. For employees who had come from upcountry homes to work in Pune and other cities, the ability to work from home was inadequate, either in the city where they were sharing apartments or back in their home towns where internet connectivity was patchy and not permitting uninterrupted work. Providing them with a facility to work from office or “work from anywhere” mitigated the tension of being inadequate for the demands of work and while young married women including mothers may not have admitted it, the opportunity to spend a few hours away from the constant domestic demands at home has been a welcome relief and enabled them to keep their sanity and their jobs intact.
The other big issue that many organizations, in India and abroad are having to deal with is the isolation caused by too many months away from co-workers and a collaborative office environment. This is further aggravated by the fact that organizations and colleges will soon be inducting new batches of new recruits and they need to have the warmth of a welcome by their colleges or organizations to feel part of a new family and community. A number of augmented collaboration technologies are being experimented with including tools like AI-enabled random “meetings” online with interesting co-workers, but no amount of artificial intelligence and simulated bonding sessions can substitute the real warmth of a conversation over coffee in the workplace.
At a time when the Covid-19 menace is still far from over and there are surges in many parts of the country, it would be difficult to advocate a return to work for all, but an element of pragmatism may be needed to enable happiness to be restored, both for the employee and the organization. As we enter a new financial year with refreshed goals and new dreams, let us ensure that we are designing our workplaces for the present and the future after learning the lessons of 2020 and marching solidly forward in 2021 and beyond.