The main difference with the earlier arrangement and the Work From Home configuration is the debilitation of the informal organization.
In the last article, we had argued that the existing approach enshrined in our management practices was essentially reductionist in nature and tends to view a problem in isolation and not necessarily with its context, rendering most solutions ineffective. In order to overcome this lacuna, we had gone on to suggest that we shift our paradigm and adopt a holistic approach that views a problem or any situation as part of a larger picture. For further scrutiny into the problem situation, it is this larger picture – a ‘system’, that is considered at first. Such an approach has immense implication for practitioners of management and we shall, in the next few paragraphs, discuss some of these.
A quick recap
We had defined a ‘system’ as a collection of elements that are interconnected and collectively open to the environment. When viewing a particular problem or studying any entity we do so in conjunction with the enveloping context. The entity and its context jointly form a system and is one unified whole. That is to say the constituents of the system are interrelated to each other and collectively form a complete picture: they respond to any external stimulus in accordance with its internal logic that is a derivative of the elements and their interrelations. It is because this internal logic of a system is unknown to us, we are often surprised by the outcome. Since we usually do not consider the enveloping system in our study, our expectation of the outcome of any stimulus is based upon our logic and not necessarily that of the system.
An important and critical characteristic of a system is its unified nature. Each constituent that the system comprises is interconnected with other elements of the system and has a specific role in the entire picture. As a corollary to this, its existence is justified by its role in the overall system. It is as if they are all locked into a complete whole and changes both internal and external would engender concomitant changes in the system and internal logic that may call for adjustment, modification or even elimination of one or more of its constituents. Let us discuss this with the help of some examples.
The Pandemic and its concomitants
The Corona virus pandemic that has struck the entire world has introduced several significant changes in our lifestyles. Last time we briefly dwelt on how this has accelerated adoption of digital transactions in our society, but let’s consider another instance deriving from the same situation. In order to check proliferation of the virus, governments all over mandated a period of lockdown in most cites and towns. Owing to restrictions to movement people were constrained to Work from home (WFH) and most of us happily adapted. It was seen as an encouraging and positive step, since thereby we could avoid the daily commute. Others felt they could get back to their homes in other cities and work from there, since electronic communication was possible, and would thereby reside with their families and not have to pay rent either. In fact in some cities where the population, by and large, catered to businesses, availability of houses on rent increased substantially.
Belief in this ‘happy’ situation did not, unfortunately last long and soon we began to hear of the negatives associated with this arrangement. We read about an appeal to one of our leading industrialists from a lady who declared that if this ‘work from home’ continued for much longer her marriage was surely going to end!! Others pointed out that earlier we worked within the confines of certain timings but now there were no such time limits and we were effectively working as long as we were awake with an altogether loss in work-life balance.
While narrations of such side effects of lockdown were filtering in to all of us, we were suddenly made aware of another serious issue, a phenomenal increase in resignations. WFH appeared to have given a fillip to attrition since it was a lot easier to apply for jobs and attend interviews from the safety of one’s home as compared to doing the same while working. In fact, I understand moonlighting was greatly facilitated in this arrangement and some adventurous professional decided to leave their jobs in favour of taking on full time consulting assignments!! Who would have even thought of such outcomes?
A Systemic Perspective
Scrutinizing the situation a bit more thoroughly, we find that WFH threw up certain typical issues. We were plunged into the proposed way of working without any meaningful preparation or adequate introspection. The one difference we had identified and were happy about was, avoidance of the daily commute. However, in reality we were dealing with an entity, a system with its myriad interconnections and a major change, such as the one that was introduced, would naturally have serious side effects. Working styles, developed over the years by managers, used to working in offices, were not made for operating in a virtual world. In a face-to-face meeting we holler and repeat and get across our point but in a virtual meeting it does not seem to work as effectively. Attempts at collaboration encountered similar difficulties and hence tasks take much more time than earlier. Clearly our methods, attitude, behaviour, etc. were all intertwined and geared for physical working and changing one significant element, in this case the medium of communication, introduced changes in the functioning of the system as a whole resulting in dissatisfaction at performance.
Another aspect that has changed owing to WFH practice is the dwarfing of the informal organization. Any corporate entity or other such societal artifact has a formal and an informal organization. While we have a surfeit of management literature on the formal organization its informal counterpart has received much less attention. Occasionally a few managers tend to totally ignore this part of the organization much to their peril. However, with maturity you realize that it does exist and is a force to contend with. The main difference with the earlier arrangement and the WFH configuration is the debilitation of the informal organization. Informal relationships develop over time, ensures continuity and often smoothens abrasive edges in interactions. Absence of this critical element of an organization therefore, is a major hindrance in building trust and managing conflict and thereby fails to create a sense of belonging. This, in my opinion, is perhaps the reason for this unnaturally high attrition. Here again a system comprising the earlier organizational elements has been disturbed and without the informal organization is no longer able to function the way it did earlier. While the change has occurred, no one worked on compensating this change and hence the system started exhibiting unexpected outcomes in the form of high attrition.
These two are small examples where a systems approach could have highlighted these issues and aided in taking suitable corrective measures to avert such an outcome. A system whose constituent elements are well connected and which functions as one unified entity if disturbed tends to operate on an altered internal logic, contrary to what was prevailing before.
The question that emerges at this juncture is what do we do if changes such as these are required? Do we not make any change?
The first step in answering these questions is to understand the role of each constituent element in the system. As we move forward we shall discuss this and subsequent steps in any organizational change.