The scramble is on. For businesses, technology is no longer just convenient. It is essential to our very survival.
Every single business must now make it their first priority to audit their companies and move everything possible online.
Everything paper-based should be moved online. Desktops should be replaced with laptops wherever possible. If an employee is making a call, answering an e-mail, working on their computer, or recording anything manually, this can be done remotely.
Our greatest challenge will be our controls. Manual processes have persisted largely because they are seen as “safer.” This fiction will now be dispelled. Businesses must also move quickly to ensure that their controls can be duplicated or changed online. This sounds boring, but is absolutely critical to protect our system as we enter the greatest social experiment of our lives.
Hundreds of millions are already working remotely. The stock of Zoom, Houseparty and other videoconferencing apps have soared.
If it works this experiment can enable productivity to soar. Without doing anything, we recapture time lost in a commute – this can be up to two hours a day in TT for many people. That’s almost 25 per cent of an eight-hour day.
We can dispel distraction. The University of California has shown that every time we are distracted, by say a colleague stopping by our desk to chat, it takes on average 23 minutes to get back on track.
The ideal situation? You wake up early in the morning, exercise, shower, change and have breakfast. You are at your workstation (maybe even a rigged-up ironing board/standing desk) and start working. No distractions; no chit-chat, no one hovering over your shoulder.
A meme has been circulating: “I guess we’re all about to find out which meetings could’ve been e-mails after all.” We will recapture thousands of hours.
Yes, working at home has many pitfalls. We must psychologically rewire ourselves to work in an environment we currently associate with play and relaxation. Boundaries will be carved and routines set. Set up your workstation, buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and make your limits clear: “Mummy will play with you in an hour.” In the short term, daycare will be a great challenge and we will have to be inventive.
The practical challenges are just the beginning: the bigger concern is trust and motivation. Managers must trust employees to do their job, and employees must earn that trust by delivering.
This is especially worrying in our local context. We are, according to the latest World Values Survey, the least trusting country in the entire world – only 3.4 per cent agree that others could be trusted.
The great majority of managers in TT have autocratic, micromanaging styles. They often also protest, and often with reason, that have been burnt many times by skiving employees. Managers great fear is that if they do not micromanage, their employees productivity will plunge.
Both managers and employees now have no choice but to change. The only other option is businesses going under and jobs lost. The fight now is existential.
That said, autonomy does not mean abandonment. Under-managing can worse than micromanaging. We must speak with our teams, help them plan, and steer them through challenges.
As the ancient Russian proverb goes, “trust, but verify.” Remote work strips away the comforting illusions that paper over our lives. Suddenly, you are being judged less on your time spent working and more on your results. We must find the metrics that make most sense for us. Companies that have been content, and even performed decently, without using metrics will suddenly find themselves at an immediate disadvantage.
The toughest part will be recreating the glue that holds society together: those insignificant glances and phrases that keep our inner Neanderthals at bay. Those interactions will not be lost – but we may have to be more structured about our serendipitous encounters.
We should take advantage of this situation. If you interact with people abroad, why not invite them for a virtual coffee? A friend of mine in London shared a 40-person virtual office drinks session last Friday.
In this new world, proximity will confer less power. We have been given the opportunity to play on the same playing field as anyone in the first world, but only if we operate on international standards. If not, we will be swiftly left behind.
Make no mistake, the world will not be the same after this is over. The choice lies with us. We can and must harness technology to free us from our chains, extract meaning from drudgery, and renew our sense of purpose.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh