WFH – the story so far


The vaccines were supposed to be saviours. They are, but vaccinating the world is obviously the largest health care project being attempted – and production and distribution must keep pace. Meanwhile, the virus has mutated, and we are back to countries battling the 2nd and 3rd waves.

On the work front, we have gone from virtual bookshelves and scenic landmarks to practical backdrops for video calls. A certain predictability has set in even with all the unpredictability as compared to a year ago, when lockdowns began rolling out across all workplaces.  The first question was whether things would grind to a standstill. Every call began with anxious queries about the measures the organization had put in place to ensure continuity – and commitments extracted to meet expectations and deadlines.

The pandemic has levelled work equations worldwide. Everyone knows what it is like to be in the same boat. When a flood or a natural calamity happened in one part of the world explaining that the infrastructure was down, or the local situation was challenging, took multiple calls and emails going back and forth. If all is right in one part of the world, why are things so different in another? That is no longer the case. The virus has been the great unifier – sending people behind masks scurrying for cover. The conceptual Six Degrees of separation between human connections worldwide has become six feet distances to be maintained locally!

Coping mechanisms have evolved.

Today, we have a much better idea of how to cope as well as the things that will change for the better. Extensive travel may no longer be essential to wrap things up. Video calls are not the ideal solution, but they are practical and can be set up at short notice. Meeting someone face to face meant that there would be a certain amount of time spent in small talk and catching up. Now, it is direct, and work is concluded without dwelling on tangential aspects and the courtesies those in-person meetings involved.

The definition of onsite has changed – from halfway across the world into the next room! Admittedly, this has led to piquant situations at home and a blurring of boundaries. There are, of course, scenarios and work that warrants people being physically present. But some of them are being abstracted away much like software itself has done to hardware. We used to think that classrooms should be physical spaces. But today, it is perfectly acceptable for the professor to be in the US and the students to be distributed across 20 or more countries. It is not the same as being in a ‘proper’ classroom. But then, a lot more students now have access.

The pandemic has driven collective understanding of the constraints that people operate under – and shown how the best way forward is to build on it, rather than think of it as a setback. Interviews and appointments have been managed through virtual meetings. There are teams who have yet to meet their new boss in person and yet, productivity and efficiency held up. For most companies, this was not a choice. They had to find a way to continue operations and deliver.

As a result, the ways in which people were screened, interviewed, hired, and brought on board has evolved. Instead of in-person meetings, it has mostly virtual. Onboarding new employees and acquainting them with company values, internal processes and job expectations was managed and each hiring and onboarding experience added to the company’s repertoire of adapting to the situation.

Most  customers joined in enthusiastically and helped to drive things along. They contributed to the process of integrating teams and bringing them up to speed on expectations and of course the culture. New internal communication ideas were suggested and implemented. Quizzes, contests, music, and book discussions became part of the interactions and helped to break the routine. New stars and talent came to the fore.

Social initiatives like helping the less privileged and contributing to their sustenance were undertaken. It was part of letting employees empathise and helping them overcome a physical and mental phase – since they were the hardest hit.

Securing Work from Home vs Work from Office

One of the earliest problems to be solved was the security implications of employees logging in from remote locations and keeping data secure. It was much easier to maintain protocols in a protected environment as opposed to having people log in from different IPs.

Patch cycles for VPNs had to be accelerated, multifactor authentication tightened, and device virtualization implemented in a matter of days. And they had to be tested and put in place even while there was no easy way to address the entire workforce and instruct them on the rollout.

The important issues that followed included sensitizing employees to follow strict protocols and how it was each one’s responsibility to ensure they did not fall prey to phishing attempts and validate interactions that involved sensitive materials being exchanged.

And security teams have delivered, holding together multiple validation points of access without inconveniencing customers beyond a point and assisting teams in solving the problems that arose. It is quite clear that the ‘new normal’ a phrase bandied about in the initial months of the pandemic seems to have receded into the background now.

The Remote Economy comes into being.

According to a Stanford research report 42% of the US economy works from home. India probably has higher numbers but a smaller percentage of the population working remotely for several reasons. A large part of the economy is made up of small and medium companies and they require people to work on site and not from home.

An article from WeForum breaks down how the world economy is likely to evolve, depending on the numbers of people who will continue WFH but if the Covid situation eases in the next few months, there will be a calibrated return of people to offices

One of the things most likely to happen is that companies will factor in the changes and adjust work around it accordingly. Offices may return to 30-40% occupancy to begin with and then, depending on the way things pan out, edge it up to normal capacity over a few months.

What has changed is that the headlines have got less strident, the time spent outdoors has increased and people have had more family time in the last one year than in previous years.

The remote economy was created in the last year. We know now that it has accelerated the adoption of digital trends by almost a decade, and we are unlikely to go back to where things were in early 2020. Digital infrastructure has kept pace and while speeds may not have been optimal, work got done.

The one situation not factored into business continuity plans was that the world would come to a standstill – it was one of the toughest tests for IT infrastructure as dramatic surges in usage within months kept infrastructure providers on edge. There have been problems, but outages have been far less than feared.

Healthcare infrastructure, apart from IT will be a priority for the next decade and the lessons learned will be put to good use in future. WFH has ensured that human ingenuity is still our best fall-back option.

– TV Vinod Kumar, COO, Impelsys