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How the pandemic will redefine work in 2021

The way we work and interact with colleagues has changed dramatically. A look at the changes that will remain.

People are looking at ways to create comfortable spaces for each function at home.
People are looking at ways to create comfortable spaces for each function at home. (Getty Images)

Let’s face it, our pre-covid work life is not coming back anytime soon. We will still be working remotely, and visiting offices intermittently at best.

For officer-goers, 2020 was a year of many firsts. Not only did work come home, virtual meetings and gatherings became the norm. We allowed our colleagues, bosses and strangers to see our homes. The physical divide between work and personal spaces disintegrated. With nowhere to go, people worked more. Productivity increased.

All this took a toll, though organisations pivoted to keep their workforce engaged and motivated. Empathy and agility became key virtues for leaders: upskilling, giving up office spaces, rolling out new policies.

What can we expect in 2021? Some offices are opening up, but only a fourth to half of all employees are allowed at any point—and that too with safety protocols in place.

Work from home is here to stay

Even though many companies are planning to reopen offices next year, entry will be staggered. Human resource experts believe organisations will look at a hybrid work model, with people going in to offices largely for meetings or brainstorming sessions.

At home in the office

Since the realisation has sunk in that home will now also be office and school, people are looking at ways to create comfortable spaces for each function, with work or multi-use furniture, room soundproofing, even more greenery.

Water-cooler conversations

One of the things people miss most about offices is the interaction with colleagues, the so-called water-cooler conversations that allowed for a certain kind of bonding. Virtual chai pe charchas and dedicated catch-up meetings are poor substitutes. This is likely to remain a challenge.

Focus on mental health

Issues related to mental and physical health emerged front and centre this year. Long work hours, work weeks blurring into weekends, fear of the virus, feelings of isolation, all took a a physical and mental toll. Organisations took note, partnering with meditation and counselling experts, even sponsoring therapy sessions as stress and anxiety levels shot up amongst employees. Some floated the concept of no-meeting hours and no-Zoom days. The focus on emotional and mental well-being is very much on the radar of companies.

A shift in employee perks

Organisations moved quickly to create new kinds of options: for work-from- home furniture, tech accessories, enrolling for courses, gift vouchers for self- care. Health insurance was tweaked to include reimbursements for covid-19 tests and treatment.

Many employees saw the year end with vast reserves of leave. Some companies responded, carrying forward leave or encashing it, others offered mandatory “reboot” and “surprise” leave clubbed with long weekends over and above the annual leave.

Virtual hiring

Companies were forced to take the plunge and hire virtually. Sectors that were least impacted by the pandemic took the lead, and experts believe the trend will continue. Remote working lifts the barriers of geographic restrictions, allowing companies to hire people from anywhere, and employees to work without moving cities. What’s also interesting is that companies continued their diversity and inclusion activities, hiring women re-entering the workforce as well as people with disabilities, despite business taking a hit. Expect this to continue in 2021.

Assessment parameters

Managers had to reset the way they assessed teams. The conventional mindset of seeing who put in how many hours in the office gave way to a firm focus on outcomes. A trend that is bound to continue.

Rise of gig workers

Organisations looking with concern at their bottom lines leant on the more economical option of freelance consultants. So much so that platforms which connect organisations with freelance consultants are expecting rapid growth in the demand for gig workers.

A matter of salaries

Remote working has allowed employees to return to home towns or even work from places that are considered holiday destinations, like Goa or Himachal Pradesh. Some human resource experts predict this may lead to changes in remuneration structures, with an employee’s location being taken into account. In May, for instance, Facebook announced it was revising the salary structure of employees depending on the zip code they lived in, since the costs of living differed.

Some companies have started rolling back pay cuts or giving increments. But average hikes across sectors in India are down to 3.6%, an all-time low, according to the 2020 Workforce And Increment Trends survey conducted by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India.

2021, then, will continue to be a year of change as organisations and employees settle into new ways of functioning—and streamline processes for this.

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