WFH: Drinking from a fire hose

We’ve pitchforked into action without any process or an established way of working. As a leadership team, what can we do right now to handle this disruption and help settle things down inside our enterprise?

Kavi Arasu

[Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay]

This column is part of the Sounding Board series, where we ask experts to help us think through real leadership dilemmas around work challenges, learning mindsets, managing transitions, and ethical conflicts.

"I am COO at a mid-sized consumer products firm. We've been caught completely on the wrong foot when all of us in the head office in Mumbai were forced to work from home (WFH) last week. This is clearly not something any of us were prepared for. We've never done this before. We found ourselves pitchforked into action without any process or an established way of working. As a result, most of my direct reports say they feel quite uneasy about WFH. And we've found that we're working much longer hours, without any respite, leaving us all fatigued and stressed out. Some of our colleagues say they hate working from home. So we've tried to reason with them that this might not last longer than March 31 (now April 14). But deep inside, I know this may take longer—and we may need a better plan, in case this phase drags on. As a leadership team, what can we do right now to handle this disruption and help settle things down inside our enterprise?"

~ Anirban Saha (name changed on request)

Hello Anirban,

Thank you for writing in. This is a difficult time and leaders across the world are wrestling with the sudden uprooting of their office and home lives! I have been working with organisations and leaders who have been working hard at it over the last couple of weeks and I must first say that you are not alone. The stress, fatigue and anxieties are all too evident. Sometimes explicit and at many other times heard as an undertone in calls and conversations.

First off, the temptation that we must guard against is to think of this as 'work from home', where work has a new location to get done from—home. No! This is a fundamental disruption of everything we know, including good old 'work from home’.

Last week a couple of prescient organisations rapidly dismantled well-laid-out desks and sophisticated desktops, shipping them to the homes of their employees. They soon realised that work and work processes were not built for work from home. Shifting the infrastructure home is the easier part. Porting work home for a few months is a tough ask. Neither is the home ready to accommodate full time work, nor has the work been designed that way for many.

Think about these. All of the immediate family is at home. And at many Indian homes that is immediate family, aged parents, in-laws, relatives, all living in a small space. I have been on calls where kids have interrupted, husbands have been shouted at and wives have been asked to bring chai—while their work selves are trying hard to focus on the call. Stressful, to say the least! Finding a new rhythm is a huge challenge.

Redrawing expectations and helping employees find a new rhythm is the chief goal for leadership teams at this stage. That also means, helping yourself find a new rhythm. Please remember, this is not going to go away on April 15. If sustained performance is your game, operating with a 'business-as-usual-from-home’ mindset is setting up the organisation for fatigue and failure. This mindset is akin to the mistake many rookie long distance runners make—they start sprinting at the beginning of the race. The experienced ones know the importance of stretching muscles before starting and pacing themselves well to be able to run the full distance well. This is a marathon. Prepare well!   

So, what can you specifically do? For starters, prioritise work. Going full throttle on all fronts is a recipe for fatigue. Break targets down into even smaller pieces. Help teams establish new routines and ways of working. Much of your time will go in calls and conversations. Celebrate small wins and help the team set a new normal. Start and establish rituals like a morning video call where your people can see each other.

That involves a lot of time spent listening to people. Here’s a tip. Encourage your leaders to share their struggles of working from home with the team. Just that one act will loosen up the team and help them see that everybody is in it together. With one organisation that I am working with, leaders resolved to set listening calls with their teams members. They found interesting stories. But it started with leaders sharing their own situation. One of them shared how he has to share household chores and wash the dishes. Something that he hasn’t done in a long while. Plus, his wife who also works took his desk and the daughter took the living room for lessons that came from school. There was dead silence on the call for a while before it opened the floodgates for sharing!

The single biggest thing you’ll miss about an office setup is the informal conversations. You see, the formal stuff will get scheduled and welded into the calendar. The banter suffers. Leaders must establish the space for the same.

One more thing. With the work moving home, the physical separation between work and family time is gone. Remember to log off and encourage teams to do the same as well.

All of these may seem inconsequential to the typical senior leader, whose memory of the ways of working that has brought success over the years supersedes the scale of the current disruption. This is NOT small. This is disruption at a scale the world has not seen before. Pace your work and get going.

To sum up:

  • Acknowledge disruption
  • Help people find rhythm
  • Break up the work into smaller parts
  • Get informal stuff going
  • Log off

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About the author

Kavi Arasu
Kavi Arasu

Leadership and Talent Development Professional

Kavi is a talent and organisational change specialist who loves to play at the intersection of people, technology and organisational change.  

He has two decades of corporate experience in multi-cultural environments, both in MNCs and Indian organisations. He began his career in sales and marketing before choosing to specialise in leadership, talent, organisation development and change.

In his last assignment at Asian Paints, a $2 billion coatings multinational based out of India, Kavi was the group head for talent management, learning, leadership & organisational development, and diversity & inclusion. In this role, Kavi led a team that implemented technology tools for learning, performance and culture augmentation, while ensuring that the change process was anchored in real, meaningful conversations, a strong human connect and on-the-ground work.

Kavi has particularly enjoyed working in the areas of leadership transitions and development, M&A integration, cultural assimilation, succession pipeline building and strengthening the pillars of culture. He has an abiding interest in the power of storytelling and the Future of Work.

As an executive coach, Kavi works with several senior leaders across the industry, helping them to take charge of the future and deal with their current challenges. He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation. He began working as an executive coach in 2007 and has worked on embedding coaching as a culture in large organisations.

Kavi provides thought leadership to Founding Fuel’s learning business. He is closely involved in building a practice that helps clients achieve business results that they seek through uniquely crafted and impactful programmes. Inside Founding Fuel, he acts as a coach to the founding team to help them become better leaders, reach their full potential and to question status quo.

In addition to his role at Founding Fuel, he runs an independent executive development portfolio for senior leaders and select organisations. His areas of work range from executive coaching, strategic consulting and change for digital/tech projects, process facilitation, design thinking and the like. He strives to keep his work simple and anchored on real change while constantly working at the boundary of stretch and challenge. 

Kavi has a Masters in Business Administration. The fact that he is in “perpetual beta mode” helps him stay excited and alive. As the India Chair for the International Association of Facilitators for 2016, Kavi was instrumental in working with several global facilitators that helped custom design solutions around organisational strategy and design thinking.

Kavi speaks at a number of global and national platforms and connects with global peers to stay current and updated. An accent on inter-disciplinary approaches to problem solving, deep listening and a curious mind that believes in the power of conversation provide him energy. 

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