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Friday, August 6, 2021

    Pandemic: Work Disrupted; Education Disrupted

    With the Lockdown-2.0 in place till May 3, organisations have to be agile and quick in changing its working style. In my earlier article, I have written about resilient organisations which do not fail in the face of disruptions, rather, they are prepared and they adapt.

    Organisational resilience means understanding the organisation, its context, its objectives, planning well, emergency preparedness and response, improving the adaptability of supply chains, collaborating with stakeholders and leveraging Information technology, telecommuting to assure continuity even in the face of the catastrophic disruption like Covid-19.

    A global survey conducted by the Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) of 2,750 business leaders indicated most companies would not able to survive the impact of the pandemic. The survey indicated revenue of 84 per cent companies in Asia had already been impacted.

    Speaking of crises and how they expose weak companies, Warren Buffett once said that: “Only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” Remote work, an innovative strategy once reserved for Tech companies will be the new normal for all kind of organisations in the post-Covid19 world.

    In the past few weeks, millions of people have begun working from home with just one or two days’ notice, and their struggles have been fueled by the speed, the sense of shock, and the global nature of the catastrophic change for many organisations.

    In order to aid crisis management in this time of the pandemic, organisations should be proactive, select and invest in a set of digital collaboration tools to aid employees to telecommute and collaborate online. Remote work model offers many advantages such as lower overhead, flexible work schedules, reductions in employee commuting long distances and increases in productivity.

    But, it also brings many disadvantages such as low-bandwidth communication, lack of fulfilment of social need and loneliness due to “social distancing”, distraction of working in a home with children off from school, and stress due to an unknown future. In selecting the digital collaboration tools we should keep it flexible and intuitive.

    Information Technology as the enabler for virtual working best meets people’s needs when it is part of the regular flow of work and matches the task at hand. That means using group platforms for project work, switching to video-conferences for interactive meetings, and using the mobile phones to for direct conversations.

    In India, the free WhatsApp is very popular among individuals and private organisations, including government organisations as it offers supposedly offer “end-to-end encryption”, but it has become the largest grapevine in this country. We all know the disrepute of the various ‘WhatsApp University’ groups. 

    We as teachers also know it is easy to give assignments in a WhatsApp group of a class of students but it would be very difficult to assess the deluge of assignments received in the smartphone or Tablet. The social media platforms are invaluable for connecting organisations with their customers, stakeholders and the media. Sharing information on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter reduces the information asymmetry between organisations and their stakeholders in this time of Covid19 crisis.

    However, lack of planning, controls, training combined with the unpredictability of online behaviour of employees can expose organisations to considerable risk. The organisations’ IT managers should consider the risks of online social loafing, disclosures and leakage of sensitive information, cyber-attacks, and should take an active role in regulating and monitoring social media activity. Unnecessary social media posts by employees can cause serious damage to an organisation’s reputation.

    Many Indian companies such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys and others have built enterprise-wide platforms that enable all employees, wherever they were located, to work collectively, with tools to assign tasks and manage performance. These enterprise-wide platforms have shown the importance of building strong collaboration practices, such as deciding upfront on goals, targets and key performance indicators, clearly defining boundaries and spans of control, clarifying tasks and processes, and measuring job performance and commitments.

    In times when employees are out of sight and working remotely, Tata’s top management emphasize the importance of focusing on values. Trust is the key and values stronger than steel. Top management will have to trust that people working from home are engaged and productive.

    To communicate clearly and transparently, policymakers will need immediately to revise their organisation’s Human Resource (HR) policy and IT policy for remote work. Urgently implement use of digital tools and start recording who decides what and why. When possible, record meetings and activities on video and make them available to everyone in the organization. This provides transparency into the key information employees need, thus increasing trust, and it provides clarity around decision making at the top and also the employees’ responsibilities and accountability.

    Duty roster of employees of companies has to be designed, trying out schedules where people spend four days at the office and two days at home, such flexible working is the norm of European countries like Denmark. Also, the organisations’ Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) and Hygiene & Sanitation standard operating procedures (SOPs) with Work Instructions have to be documented, posted online and shared in WhatsApp for administrative control, clarity and communication to all the stakeholders.

    There are plenty of tools and apps like Skype, Zoom, Slack and the Indian platform Flock that can be easily installed and used for virtual meetings and classes. To get full access to the software functionalities, it would require top management of various organisations and educational institutions to subscribe to a paid plan.

    In India, the Chinese software Zoom has become very popular for video-conferences. But its Chinese ties and security flaws has raised alarm as researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab suggested there are “significant weakness”. The encryption is not end-to-end by industry standards, despite Zoom CEO Eric Yuan claiming so. Open source video-conference tool Jitsi (meet.jit.si) is free, secure, easy to create conference-rooms/classrooms and invite participants by sharing a passcode.

    The criteria for investing in online tools are ease of use and speed of implementing such tools in this time of pandemic crisis. But, do we have the hardware for video-conferences and classrooms when the supply-chain to procure computers and video-conferencing equipment has been disrupted?  Also, with everyone who has a smartphone, of the 135 crores people locked down, are online watching movies, playing games, socializing via various apps, hogging the data pipelines.

    Without high-speed broadband access to the Internet, it is not possible for small business owners, self-employed professionals, teachers and students to go online for video-conferences and online interactive classrooms. The new reality in the Covid19 affected world – Data is the new Oil.  We observe in this recession due to the Covid19 pandemic, with lack of demand for crude oil the price collapsed to below $ 20 per barrel, whereas with the Facebook investment of US$ 5.7 billion the Reliance Jio is a winner and the first to capitalize its asset.  

    In this time of Covid19 crisis with ‘social distancing’ norm remaining in place for a long time, it is uncertain when our students will return to their classrooms. Top management of educational institutions should facilitate the adoption of online classes as soon as possible. We will lose about 36 days of classes till May 3.

    But, beyond that, it will be very tough to cover the syllabus and then have examinations. Though there will be some disadvantage of going online – we lose the personal touch of teaching with the high bandwidth face-to-face lectures, with chalk and blackboard, and paper-pencil/pen assessment. Online all the non-verbal cues and supplementary information of those cues that we convey in a face-to-face class are lost. I invited some postgraduate students for online video classes.

    The response by the class representative dismayed me: “We would like to bring to your notice that online classes are not 100% feasible for us as only 26 (approximately) out of 52 students are able to attend class because of network issues as many us are staying at our home village”. In Assam, roughly more than 90 per cent of students from primary level to post-graduate do not have access to online classrooms.

    We should recognize that every disruption represents a learning opportunity that may suggest shifting to an improved state of operations. What is clear is that the post-COVID-19 world will be a very different one. Many organisations in hospitality, travel and tourism, oil exploration & refining, automobile, education will see drastic changes. Organisations will have to be agile, discard bureaucracy, adopt new working style and technology to adapt and survive.

    Now is the time to discard bad working habits of scheduling too many meetings, having long commutes creating large carbon footprints, and not spending enough time with our families. In the post-COVID-19 world, those organisations that are able to blend the ways of working with both the virtual and the physical will get the most from both, will recover quickly and be more resilient for the future.

    A culture of resilience will help organisations to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, adapt and recover from, and to thrive in this age of disruption where new diseases and other forms of ecological disasters are a new reality.

    The writer works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System, Occupational Health and Safety Management System and Energy Management in scores of service and manufacturing organisations. 

    He teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University, a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and trainer with many other public and private sector organisations. 

    The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.

    Photo credit: snapcomms.com


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    First published