Getting Future-ready For Work India can bend the COVID-19 curve and manage to get jobs done by adapting to the new normal

By Praveen Mokkapati

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As many of us will step into our work cubicles after the lockdown gets over, we would have to adapt to several "new normals'. The pace of automation and technology adoption that was set in motion before the lockdown has only hastened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this pandemic is expected to take more than a year to become inconsequential, it can only mean that the "future of work' is here to stay.

For instance, for following social distancing norms and sanitization requirements, firms would need to provision more towards operating costs. They would also need to re-design newer evaluation metrics to assess employee performance as we work in a COVID-19 world.

Today, we are seeing non-technology companies such as Ford Motor testing vibrating wrist bands to enforce a six feet social distancing in their offices. Closer to home, in India, most organizations functioning through this lockdown and for the near future, would be running status checks of their employees on the Aarogya Setu app before letting them inside premises.

The need for touch or facial recognition interfaces for attendance are diminishing as employees are logging in timestamps remotely using mobile apps. Factory floors are looking at relying ever more on automation—some of them more with the intent of mandating distancing norms, but everyone will realize the long-term cost savings. The marketing functions in consumer-centric sectors are looking to leverage technologies such as artificial intelligence to stay relevant with emerging social preference of consumers to stay indoors and shop online.

With efficiency, speed and cost-effectiveness as the mantra, organizations would drive innovations across their workspaces and work culture. Viewpoints would undergo a sea change and what was earlier "unthinkable' will become the new way of doing things. With Internet-of-things and connected devices rapidly increasing, touchpoints such as elevator controls, printers and even air-conditioners in our offices could see voice-enabled interactivity.

Aspects of our work culture such as work-from-home (WFH), earlier deemed privilege of a few, has become necessary to ensure health and safety of employees during the COVID-19 outbreak. Employees and employers alike learned how to work individually and without oversight, as corporate engagements get digitised. Employees determined to adapt to a new routine in their lives, found unique ways to improve productivity through trial and error.

At Srini Raju Centre for IT and the Networked Economy (SRITNE-ISB), the technology research centre at Indian School of Business, we started studying the WFH phenomenon in India since the past few months more closely than ever before. Professors Deepa Mani and Shekhar Tomar (Working Paper: COVID-19 – Transitioning out of the Lockdown, May 2020) have conducted research on how the lockdown impacts occupations and their WFH potential found interesting trends in economic impact due to the lockdown across different districts of India.

In the cases of drivers, housemaids, nurses, agriculture, wholesale or retail trade and collaborative manufacturing, the results displayed low work from home potential. Whereas, computer programming, along with some other service sector jobs, were found to have high work from home potential. A few sectors, like textiles and occupations like restaurant services, the study found to have a low potential for work from home.

In the case of Delhi, the research found northeast Delhi to face much higher disruption compared to south Delhi. We can explain the variations for the fact that northeast Delhi has a lot more labour-intensive manufacturing, while those in the services sector mostly populate south Delhi.

The disruption index created by the study could be used by governments and organizations to frame a suitable policy for workers requiring close physical proximity, for those engaging in work from home, or for providing policy nudges like a financial package or tax breaks and tax holidays to the impacted sectors. Impact on workers across various dimensions like psychological impact, productivity and well-being are also measured in our survey.

A less obvious implication of the study was to assess the susceptibility of occupations to digitization. Going ahead, while studying and comparing economic activity after the lockdown, we expect to see new digital models to come in and alter consumer and organizational behavior rapidly. We must, therefore, watch out for these new digital business models and prepare ourselves for the new normal in our workplaces.

Praveen Mokkapati

Associate Director at SRITNE (ISB)

Praveen Mokkapati is Associate Director at Srini Raju Centre for IT and the Networked Economy (SRITNE), a technology research centre at the Indian School of Business (ISB).

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