Humanizing work in a digital world

14 July, 2021 | NEWS ARTICLE

Providing digital tools to work remotely is a given. But, in an increasingly digital world, how do you humanize a virtual workplace? Over the last year, a growing number of employees reported feeling isolated, demotivated, and disconnected from work, workplace and co-workers.

Any doubts concerning how or if workplaces needed to evolve, were put to rest when the second wave disrupted any plans India Inc had to get employees back to work. Clearly, the post-pandemic workplace will remain untethered to any location, presenting an opportunity for organizations to revamp traditional – often archaic – principles of working.

The second wave of the pandemic hit us with an intensity that led most organizations in India revisiting their continuity plans, having relaxed them to a degree amidst an interim period of normalcy. While there is no playbook even after 16 months, one thing is clear – traditional workplaces have been disrupted for good.

Providing digital tools to work remotely is a given. But, in an increasingly digital world, how do you humanize a virtual workplace? Over the last year, a growing number of employees reported feeling isolated, demotivated, and disconnected from work, workplace and co-workers.

How do you bring in some of the human touch hitherto missing in the increasingly digital world we operate in?

Humanizing digital workplaces will need to be built upon a foundation of three key pillars:

1. Building a compassionate and connected workforce

Compassion and business resiliency are not mutually exclusive. Emotional wellbeing helps build emotional resiliency. It allows employees to approach challenges in dynamic environments with a calm and clear mind. Let us acknowledge that compassion is not something that should be ‘switched on’ when in crises. Compassion and empathy need to be exercised more frequently than ‘in lip service’.

Being flexible with policies also go a long way in building compassion and letting employees know that you care. Let us take for instance Covid leave policies. The pandemic affected people in different ways and there are leave policies available to all employees for a certain duration. Does it mean employees cannot extend it if they need more time? Think.

By fostering a compassionate and connected work culture, organizations stand to gain from attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent – business outcomes that are more valuable than ever.

2. Self-service and digital skilling

According to BCG, one of the biggest perceived technology challenges is not data security or the need to invest but a lack of digitally qualified employees. Thus, the rate of an organization’s success with digital transformation depends on the extent of its adoption among employees. But how do you enable your people to adopt digital tools on par while ensuring they keep up with the changes.

The answer lies in designing user experiences that are simple. Simplicity leads to faster adoption and provides a gateway to adapt more complicated platforms or technologies. Remember Orkut? And then Facebook? This will be critical especially when talent is scarce and traditional upskilling programmes are difficult to implement.

Another area that applies within this realm is enabling self-service. Gone are the days when employees could simply walk down to the IT to trouble shoot. Organizations need to invest and provide tools with an intuitive environment that can be easily managed by employees and empower them to remove roadblocks on their own, so that adoption is simple, and value is evident.

3. Mental health

In a recent survey by KFF.org, almost half of respondents stated that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Little is spoken about mental health at work but almost everyone is experiencing some level of mental discomfort. It is not enough to provide mental health services, especially when employees do not use it given the stigma attached to it.

Mental health symptoms are just as common in the C-Suite as among individual contributors. The only way this will reduce in the future is when the leadership is honest about their own struggles with mental health. The display of vulnerability helps normalize the benefits of seeking treatment and opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking about their own challenges.

Leaders or managers need to lead by example — By not fixating on deliverables alone, but actually taking a break in the middle of the day or prioritizing a staycation and actually turning off the email.

Office Design

There will always be roles that require people to physically present at the workplace. Can warehouses or oil rigs work without human intervention? Not yet at least. Workplaces will continue to exist; however, they will need to undergo a complete makeover from a design perspective. The concept of shared or open workspaces made popular by Google, could undergo some re-thinking!

Are work desks at a safe distance from each other? Can the lunchroom accommodate more people without overcrowding the area? Are the common areas designed to encourage huddling – but at a distance? Remember, short term solutions are not the answer.

The transition is going to be as much a cultural adjustment as a technological one. Like people, no two organizations are alike. What works for one organization may not work for the other. Sustainable employee interventions will lend to more resiliency and longevity than short term fixes; throughout the pandemic and beyond. While we do not know when the crisis will end, it will end.

This article was first published on The Economic Times.

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