As a practitioner and learner of information and communications technology (ICT) and digital experiences, some compelling thoughts go through my mind in the increasingly VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world of 2020. Situations arising out of the Lehman Brothers meltdown, the Middle East instability, the Venezuelan oil crisis, and, of late, Brexit, may have, in each case, inflicted in deep measure one or two of the VUCA parameters and, at best, affected one or more geographies or sectors or both. However, this acronym often used in digital and business lingo, can be understood in its full import in the ongoing crisis. It may be stimulating and enriching, at some other time, to also debate the appropriateness of the Black Swan epithet to this 2020 phenomenon.
Suffice to say that so much is attributed to something literally so little that the adage ‘Much ado about (near) nothing’ comes to mind, and the ‘so little’, as claimed, cumulatively does not add up universally to more than 2 grams, but keeps throwing its weight around with no respect for caste, creed, social or economic strata—differentiators we as a society often tend to play with.
Now is the time not only to have appreciated and been thankful to the Covid-19 warriors—the medical fraternity, the health and sanitation workers, the municipal and essential service providers and the last-mile fulfilment associates—but also to have empathetically enquired about the welfare of those who may have attended to us during ‘normal’ times and in the recent past. The resultant acknowledgement through their voices, and our assistance thereof, help elevate the human spirit in all of us.
As countries vacillate between different shades of lockdown, work from home (WFH) has come to stay. What was once a preserve of IT and knowledge-service companies, with their well-oiled engine of WFH practices, is now being embraced by brick and mortar organisations aiming at both adoption as well as scaling-up. I recollect in the early Noughties, how a few of us representing large corporates and IT service companies through the auspices of the IT-ITES Standing Committee worked along with the Department of Telecommunications to enable WFH to service global clients 24×7 with a competitive price advantage vis-à-vis then popular outsourcing and back-office destinations like the Philippines, South Africa and Ireland. More than a decade later, after tenant partitioning of telecom assets between global and domestic entities was allowed, we are coming to another inflexion point where, besides outsourced businesses and a handful of hitherto evolved sectors, mainstream constituencies will continue to be increasingly serviced from WFH situations.
Another observation of typical organisations working in the lockdown highlights that only a certain percentage of the workforce and its management is being overstretched for either creating widgets, or developing, securing or modifying systems to cater to WFH amenability, and thus interacting frequently or more, though remotely, with each other. Conversely, another section of the workforce who, by the nature of their job profiles, would have been in the silent mode—and thus engagement of such co-workers becomes the responsibility of the leadership, extending beyond homilies to specifics, from sympathy to empathy, while assisting in their personal and professional welfare—in their case, relevant up-skilling through one of the online courses, largely complimentary these days, exploring the possible changes post-lockdown in the associated business processes and pushing virtually the incremental innovation needle for the stalled Proof of Concept (POC), could be one or more ways to sustain or even elevate professional engagement.
The WFH challenge is often seen as a technical problem from a security, scale and convenience perspective, but it requires a whole set of behavioural adjustments to bring discipline and productivity on an even keel, even if it operates at a variance of 15-50 per cent (not looking at an aggressive outlier of 75 per cent WFH by 2025 by a globally reputed IT service provider, which puts a lot of pressure on the economics of operating models of its peerage). The potential number of global 800 million endpoints, as espoused by consultants, coming under WFH candidature, up from a quarter of the pre-Covid number, includes the challenge to address the covenanted employee, the contracted associate, the IT staff, the ubiquitous IP things (in IOT parlance) and external consultants of all hues. The manufacturing, energy and utility worlds with their crown jewels, where external access historically was otherwise very restrictive, would need to be opened up with checks and balances of session limitation and DFA (Dual Factor Authentication).
With even courts gearing up to change their ways of working, we will have to be very discerning of widgets, activities and tasks earlier deemed not to be performed or processed remotely. Some of the operational colleagues (along with the recognised Business Process Management/ re-engineering SMEs) would have, during the lockdown, already begun reassessing each such process to be remotely amenable, so that they may be deployable with social distancing or partly or fully manageable by WFH. This could be a production supervisory unit for monitoring non-critical remote maintenance activity with a reduced on-field team, or a service-fulfilment company using its recipient-dependent OTP as password to deliver at the doorstep. Organisations which were up the curve with respect to fungible workstations and hot seats will now have to apply social distancing rules and the average range of 45-90 square feet per capita workstation in an open office will now have to do with half the occupancy. One would need to balance this utilisation vis-à-vis a dual shift or staggered operation so as to bring in a fuller skill set of the workforce. On the economics and supply chain fulfilment at the organisational level, this is the time to ascertain and recognise who your trusted business partners are to walk the extra mile with you in this exigency notwithstanding the contractual obligations.
One may also note that robust internet access will determine tomorrow’s socio-economic ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, if one were to note the feedback from our premier engineering institutes of how students are struggling in far-flung homes away from Tier 1 cities in the absence of universal, equitable and affordable access to telecom bandwidth. In the same breadth, these remote interactions fall far short of purposeful teaching at tertiary levels, otherwise usually interspersed with conversational inputs and non-verbal cues of students. It is relevant here to mention that significant online fatigue has behaviourally affected both speakers and attendees, and as social animals, we will continue to adopt and adapt in this arena—which is here to stay. Again, these are very different from the legacy MOOC (massive open online course) training sessions of the world which are largely uniplex.
With the consumerisation of IT, every digital citizen became an IT expert, much to the odium of the relevant professional community. However, with the advent of this scourge, this profession now has company. Two trends emerged—both virtual and at home. First, every individual today is in some state of being a consummate virologist and words like ‘anosmia’ and ‘ageusia’ are no more the preserve of the GRE aspirant. Second, those who work at home have demystified household chores and now appreciate the complexities of homemaking with more abandon and empathy. Working at home, coupled with home entertainment and pastimes, has taken on a different meaning altogether with a lot of innovation and jugaad. While attempts in self-reliance are seen in almost every sphere of life, new monikers of globalisation like the Korean Hallyu, Turkish Dizi and Thai Lakorn have provided an alternative to the recycled soap operas in the Indian household.
The pandemic as this era’s turning point, whether due to nature’s backlash, or human design malfunction, accidental or motivated, has led to an unprecedented socio-behavioural upheaval encompassing a medical, economic and social churn. The dichotomy of life and livelihood takes on a different meaning when we drown ourselves intellectually in commiserations to the migrant labour force and their recent travails. A large percentage of us are no less migrant in our own country than those displaced, yet we count ourselves fortunate to sustain ourselves wherever we are perched. We must also be conscious of the fact that India is not a homogenous landmass as far as the novel coronavirus is concerned; it is a collection of many ‘Indias’, each a distinct yet moving agglomeration of related parameters of social distancing, of varying household densities and economic diversity, ranging from agrarian to small-scale entities to automated industries. While the half-life of vaccine discovery has been reduced significantly since earlier times, with hopes of some succour in the quarters to come, the norms of social distancing, personal hygiene, exercise and careful diet would strengthen the character of herd immunity to rightfully outpace this scourge as yet another ‘flu’, as against falling into the self-inflicting herd mentality trap during the ‘unlock’ period. But that, of course, only time will tell.