Let social distance not imply emotional distance - Prabir Jha

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As the country and the world battles the threat and hysteria over the COVID-19 virus, organisations and governments in varying degrees have responded. Some have encouraged their teams to work from home; others have mandated a more severe shut down. Curtailing of travel facilities and other support systems have also pushed a new acronym to become familiar with many: WFH (Work From Home)

While this round of WFH is more to push for limiting group contact and prevent the risk of the spread of the Corona virus, and not as much for work-life balance or flexi-work my sense is that this will push to another phase of influencing the future of work, a subject for another day. The big debate is will this WFH shift lead to reduced emotional connect at the workplace?

While the jury is not out yet, we cannot and must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Organisations and leaders can use this time to create a stronger emotional connect within their teams and with the firm.

Encourage WFH stories to be shared: Most organisations turn sterile and believe there must be some firewall between home and work. Managers hardly appreciate the domestic distractions, interests and predicaments of their teams. If only they knew some could empathise and encourage better. Today there is an opportunity to share a peep of the “person” behind the role. As people share, they will express another side of their persona. I am convinced that it will only help build greater empathy, respect and support for each other.

Change the nature of meetings: Office meetings are constrained by an office physical environment. WFH meetings will be quicker and shorter. However, it could allow itself to more enquiries about each other, at the beginning or the end, given the health worries. Leaders could learn to lead meetings with empathy rather than just run directive meetings. To me, this is an opportunity for nuancing leadership development. And yes, if you want meetings to be an opportunity for high potential people to sit and observe, you can more easily invite younger talent to "sit in" and observe. This could be a great way of becoming more egalitarian and yet develop your talent.

Smart home working could lead to more time for emotional connect: A lot of time at work is sitting through hours of unproductive work and meetings. Possibly, we will get more efficient and productive at work, operating from home. Companies could share virtual tips and training inputs on these. These will be techniques that can help carry forward improved productivity at even a physical workplace. The time saved could be used to call another colleague or relative , text with those you have not for a long time, help with stuff at home without the stress of travel and just connect with family better to improve relationships at home. Companies could even explore some games and group exercises for families to try out at home, and even run a fun competition along those lines. As a CHRO, I always encouraged family days as a better engaged family is a better engaged employee. Let families be grateful to the company for helping them get
closer. And more grateful families will improve employee engagement. Most of all, the hysteria and tension will be somewhat dissipated too, an important societal contribution to have made.

Create more virtual clubs for interest groups: WFH could be a very good time for organisations to think of creating virtual interest groups, cutting across locations, functions and designations. Imagine, creating a community of dog lovers or photo enthusiasts. Away from the classical barriers of a physical workplace, it could be such a silo breaking opportunity. And common interests can even dissolve frosty work relationships as they discover something that they never ever knew about one another. Positive emotions are incubated, never directed.

Use time away from home to pause and reflect: WFH also is a great time to take anger, angst and frustration away from the recall of an inimical workplace or work relationship. The scourge also helps put life and relationships in perspective. As one has more time to pause and reflect, it can help many to wonder if many of the disturbed relationships were worth it. And to resolve to repair and let go. To attempt new beginnings. And if companies could help with some virtual counselling support through their employee assistance programmes, many could be encouraged to liberate themselves from dysfunctional relationships. A more self -aware mind surely will bring to work a more empathetic heart. And positive relationships indeed build better business results.

Every crisis has its silver lining. Am sure the current health scare and a responsible WFH regimen will enable us to see a more emotionally sensitive future of work. Let's not see these days as a break from work. Let’s make this count more. Let's help build more emotionally stronger relationships and in turn enhance the Optimism Quotient of our workplace to bounce back strong.

-Prabir Jha
(Prabir Jha is the Founder & CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory. He has been the CHRO at Dr Reddy’s, Cipla, Tata Motors and Reliance Industries. He writes extensively on leadership, culture, organisation transformation and HR trends. His Twitter handle is @prabirjha . This article was published in the Times Of India on March 25, 2020.)

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