A meme circulating on social media depicted that while the lockdown was obviously and justifiably hard for most people, office-goers across the world did not really mind it – especially those who wanted to avoid getting stuck in traffic, making small talk with colleagues, and downing average coffee every now and then.
Companies that earlier couldn’t imagine that their nature of work could absorb remote working were forced to accept the pleasant truth that, with enough processes in place, physical presence didn’t matter as much. While it is near impossible for some industries like hospitality, construction, manufacturing, and health to work from home, most others have warmed up to the idea.
In fact, surveys have found that working from home actually led to an increase in the productivity levels of employees.
We spoke to Manas Fuloria, the Founder of Frankfurt-listed software startup Nagarro. The CEO (short for Custodian of Entrepreneurship in the Organisation) revealed how the workplace of the future had changed forever because of the pandemic, what it could look like once the threat posed by the virus abates, and the steps companies can take to make the WFH format more acceptable.
A global organisation with no official headquarters, Nagarro has over 8,400 employees across 25 countries, and has clients in 48 countries. The startup mastered the hybrid working model at least two decades before it became sine qua non for the rest of the business world.
Excerpts from the interview:
YourStory (YS): According to you, what does the workplace of the future look like, especially in the post-lockdown era?
Manas Fuloria (MF): We humans have created many abstract concepts and ideas that regulate our lives, such as government, taxes, traffic rules, money, capitalism, companies, employment, etc. You would not find any of these ideas in the societies of our closest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees.
Another such artificial concept is that people of a certain age have to travel from wherever they live, sit in large halls with other colleagues doing other things for eight or nine hours each day, and do this five days a week throughout the year. It’s just a man-made idea.
And, in my opinion, the days of such reflexive hegemony are numbered, at least in our software industry.
I expect our offices to largely be turned inside out when we re-open. The office will become something like a large cafeteria, where people meet for social interaction, brainstorming, and coffee breaks. This is likely to be the dominant trend of the new software workplace, now that it has been seen that the regular work can be performed from anywhere.
There are, however, different types of workplaces, and not all may shift to new modes of work.
Factories, hospitals, and construction sites may not change much. Even within our software industry, there are different types of projects with individual needs and preferences. Some people may want to come to work every day for the entire day, and we will have to accommodate that.
So one way to think about the new workplaces in the industry is that they will be more like a “coworking” space that will be adaptable to every person or group in the manner they like, whenever they like.
In general, the one-size-fits-all approach will fade away. The future workplace will be more flexible and will adapt to specific needs.
YS: Do you agree that the pandemic helped erase, to a large extent, the already blurring geographical divide and boundaries in the business setting?
MF: The virtual working environment in the pandemic has indeed helped bring people closer together regardless of geography. Our personas have all been reduced to identically-sized boxes on a video chat! After a while, one even stops remembering who on the chat is from which part of the world.
At Nagarro, we find this exhilarating, since our mantra has always been “to make distance irrelevant between intelligent people”. However, it is not all good news. The fact that we cannot travel to meet our colleagues and business partners, we cannot spend time with them over a drink or meal, we cannot stop by their homes – this really limits the depth of our interactions. We are hoping that when the pandemic passes, we will retain the best of both worlds.
YS: What was your experience like during the lockdowns when everyone was forced to work from home? Did you notice big changes when you started working under the new format, or was it business as usual for you?
MF: On some level, we were lucky. Nagarro was and is already a globally distributed company. We have been working remotely for the longest time. The format was not new, but the obligation to adhere to it was. We switched without missing a beat.
Yet, in a pandemic, nothing is normal. We had concerns for ourselves, for our colleagues, and for our clients. The business was also changing as our clients faced completely new challenges and concerns. We needed to be more empathetic and agile than ever before.
And we missed each other! Even as a distributed company, we valued the face-to-face interactions with other people, which we missed with the lockdowns, offices closed, and the travel halted. To cope, we created new online assets for informal exchange and interaction on a variety of topics. We stressed our CARING values to keep us together as a company.
YS: What should startups and companies, which are trying to adopt a hybrid model of working — remote working as well as working from the office — think about?
MF: I think the challenge is similar to that of sustaining a relationship when distance gets in the way. You must have a deep relationship to make it work. You need to have trust. You need to put enough positive experiences into the relationship “bank” so that you have enough to ride out the occasional hiccup.
What allowed Nagarro to succeed in hybrid working is our unique humanistic culture. Our core values spell CARING, and we believe caring is our superpower.
CARING further stands for client-centric, agile, responsible, intelligent, non-hierarchal, and global. These shared values align us as a company and fuel our momentum. CARING held us together when we moved to remote working.
Despite this core alignment, it takes a lot of work to find the right ways of working, and the work never ends.
My advice? Do not try and copy what another company has done.
Every company is unique and needs to find what works for them. Be agile, experiment, listen to your clients’ and colleagues’ needs, surround yourself with people you can trust, and take the time to build what works for you.
YS: What are some of the obstacles businesses could face when transitioning to the work from home/hybrid working model?
MF: There are many different ones, but some that I have seen are:
· A drop in enthusiasm around the company’s goals
· Missing the safety net that a workplace and colleagues could sometimes bring.
· A loss in work/life balance
· Missing the “human touch”
· Less serendipitous meetings
YS: What are some ways to counter those?
MF: Humour: The importance of humour in the workplace cannot be understated. It is even more
so when dealing with a remote workforce. The freedom to joke and laugh is what keeps us together. It connects us.
Camera on: Turning your camera on during meetings reminds us that other humans, colleagues, and friends are on the other end of the digital meetings. It is much easier to relate to a person than it is a profile picture!
Digital meeting spaces: The identity of a company no longer resides in its buildings. It lives in its digital properties. However, those tools are not enough to create togetherness, and it is imperative to create company-wide digital get-togethers. These informal gatherings can be a great way of tackling various subjects and can help reflect the company’s identity not just in the content but in the way they are conducted.
Is it urgent? Here is a paradox, working from home may lead you to work more. We no longer leave the office; we live in the office. That means that we are always connected and may feel pressure to answer emails and work well past “office hours.” Before you start working at night or over the weekend, take a step back and ask how urgent it is. This alleviates stress, establishes boundaries, and gives the team members a chance to find balance.
Talk and keep the informal networks alive: We need to keep talking one-on-one, we need to keep connecting without feeling the need to schedule a meeting, we need to keep chatting and joking about subjects that have nothing to do with the company. We have to continue to be friends. Leaders set the tone by their behaviour, but this message also needs to go out through the HR channels, especially during the pandemic.