How employers are allaying stress of staff working from home
The chairman of a south based conglomerate was recently discussing a critical issue with his top team during a video conference when he was suddenly interrupted by the piercing whistle of a pressure cooker in the background. The stunned team relaxed and laughed only when the chairman said he hoped to be invited for the meal.
“We waited for the whistle to end to continue our discussion. But we all better get used to it. No one knows how long this will last,” he said, laughing.
Another CEO said their meetings are sometimes disturbed by a dog barking in the background or the loud chatter of children. But this is what India Inc chieftains call the “new normal” way of work life.
As employees adjust to the new way of work life at the very place where they live, business leaders are trying to make things easier by using humour to allay panic and stress. Business tycoon Anand Mahindra recently said in a Twitter post that he wears lungis during work from home video calls.
Hero MotoCorp chairman Pawan Munjal has been one of the busiest corporate leaders during the lockdown, having addressed about 10 interactive townhall meetings with over 4,000 employees over video conferencing. “Given the challenging situation the automobile sector is in, it is important to understand the anxiety of our employees and show empathy,” Munjal said.
“He speaks to us and even our families and kids quite regularly through his digital townhalls,” a top Hero official told ET on condition of anonymity.
Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw finds it quite normal to see children peeping into video conferences or playing in the background.
“These are homes, not workspaces, and we all have to show empathy about that. It is about rallying together to stay focused at work in the current confused environment,” she said.
Many employees working from home are struggling to cope with the demands of office and house work. Counsellors say working from home is like navigating a new terrain in terms of how to collaborate with teams, fill in communication gaps and still get the job done.
“For those who always worked from home, business would be as usual. But for those who haven’t done it before, the ambiguity is wrecking chaos,” said Shefali Batra, founder of MINDFRAMES, a behavioural and emotional wellness solutions provider.
The lack of alternative work options for employees is frustrating and perplexing, counsellors say. The lockdown can be seen as a sort of captivity and can trigger panic. In an office, people are used to moving from one meeting room to another or meeting up with colleagues in the cafeteria. At home, everything requires more conscious and deliberate efforts.
Working from home requires pvying up Wi-Fi access, setting up appropriate backgrounds for video calls, finding space to work without getting disturbed and sometimes even wearing formal clothes – and, at the end of the day, still getting exhausted.
Internet speeds at homes have slowed with several members of the household fighting for Wi-Fi. Many people have had to quickly get up to date with new software to connect with teams in other locations. Some companies insist that their teams dress formally for meetings to maintain a sense of normalcy about work.
Many employees live in small houses with no dedicated work areas, one CEO acknowledged. Many are unwilling to come on video calls and when it is made mandatory, they do so using a wall or curtain as the background, the CEO said.
According to Venu Srinivasan, chairman of TVS Motor, a substantial amount of work gets done through video conferencing as employees seem to be focussed at work.
The CEO of a consumer company said one of his team members opted for audio calls since he was frequently interrupted with his toddlers rushing into the room during meetings. “All of us are learning empathy about such things. Many employees stay in flats in cities which really do not give that kind of space for a separate work studio,” he said.
Gopal Vittal, CEO (India and South Asia) at Bharti Airtel, does a virtual townhall with all employees every week to motivate them, given the telco’s critical role in ensuring solid communication networks during the lockdown.
“I want to again reiterate the contradiction that we face – personal anxiety and professional urgency. Not one or the other, but both. Both are here and now. Both have been thrown at us so that we make a mark in our own history,” Vittal said at one townhall.
Vittal told ET that he asks his employees to first take care of themselves and their families.
“I tell them to be relaxed about work intruding into your home. There is anxiety about how we can work in a world that seems to have changed so much. There is personal anxiety about the intrusion of work into the home – kids running around or crying when you are in the midst of a call. Is that ok or not? Above all, there is the anxiety of going in to work,” he said.
Still, working from home can be anything but relaxing and many people find it can be quite draining. “People are wondering – why am I so tired? This exhaustion is more emotional than physical. The home environment isn’t conducive to work. Our brain associates the home with relaxation, pleasure and, above all, a break from work. That is why sleeping on a bed and waking up to work on it all day (as it is in some middle-class households) is taxing,” said Batra.
Then there’s the absence of social contact – everyone is missing colleagues, friends and even casual acquaintances. Managers need to deal with their own stress while caring for their teams, so wellness webinars and consultations have started.