2022: Corporate Catharsis

The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the way the world lives and works. Things will eventually settle down. Covid will regress from pandemic to endemic as the Spanish flu did a century ago. But something fundamentally has changed. There are rare inflection points in history. When Europe industralised in the late 1700s, the concept of the “office” did not exist. Workers lived in, or near, factories.  

Ajit Balakrishnan, co-founder of Rediffusion, explains: “People working under one roof dates back only to the Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th century. Richard Arkwright – the inventor of ‘water frame’, a large cotton spinning machine powered by a water-wheel – found his machine too large to fit into a single house. So he assembled all the people working under one roof in a centralised location in Derbyshire, England, and called it Cromford Mill, the ‘factory’. Till then, all weaving of cloth had been done throughout the world by craftsmen working from home.  

“Just as Arkwright’s water frame drove the creation and spread of the ‘factory’, it was the parallel growth of industries like banking, rail, insurance and telegraphy that created the need for a large number of clerks to handle order processing, accounting, and document filing, which created the ‘office’. It is widely believed that the East India Company’s location in Leadenhall Street, London, in 1729 from where an army of bureaucrats  managed their colonial possessions was the first large ‘office’ in the world.”  

Are we therefore simply returning to the  old normal that we today call the new normal? Work from home (wfh), work from anywhere (wfa) and a hybrid mix of using a centralised open-plan office for weekly or bi-weekly meetings rather than a structured 9-5 office will soon be normal practice. Technology is the enabler. Gen Z – those born after 1996 – have embraced the hybrid model. They will drive change in corporate culture as they assume power and responsibility this decade.  

But the future of work has dimensions beyond workplaces. Gen Zers are far more likely to take on gig jobs, sacrificing the comfort and security of a fixed corporate tenure. For them, work-life balance is a priority.  Twenty-somethings in their first jobs are as much at home on Twitch, Wickr and Reddit as they are on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.  Changing social media habits are a  signpost of the corporate future. These aren’t just future CEOs. They are today’s consumers.  

Even communications have changed. A likely casualty will be email as people increasingly communicate on P2P (peer to peer) platforms. Only when you want to send a “Dear All” communication will email be used. For the rest it will be P2P.  

Mark Zuckerberg has spotted the trend. Facebook’s new avatar Meta is an attempt to stay relevant and draw millennials and Gen Zers back to Facebook. The myth Zuckerberg has sold is that Meta will open up a “metaverse”.  

Why is this a myth? Because the metaverse is a newly packaged version of VR (visual reality) and AR (augmented reality). Both have been around for decades. To experience the metaverse, you need heavy goggles that  can give you a headache unless you are a gamer. Indeed, Facebook’s Meta will attract the huge, lucrative gaming universe filled with under-30s. That is the future Zuckerberg sees for Meta nee Facebook.  

The way young startup founders do business is also changing.  The valuations of their startups, many of which are not yet profitable, have skyrocketed. The market valuation of Byju’s, for example, is estimated to be $48 billion (Rs. 3.75 lakh crore) in a future Nasdaq IPO. That is more than the combined market capitalisation of Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra.  

But the frenetic pace of startups often leaves scars. Founders operate in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Mental health is a growing problem. At times, this can be fatal. The tragic death, following cardiac arrest, of 32-year-old Pankhuri Shrivastava, founder of the Sequoia-backed women’s social community platform named after herself, Pankhuri, underscores the need to manage the conflicting pressures of work and life.  

Pankhuri’s demise is especially poignant: she was a young woman who mentored other women. Her platform was socially interactive and encouraged the life-work balance the corporate world needs in a tech-driven society where isolation can cause psychological stress.  

Technology is a double-edged sword. It has flattened the playing field, giving women new opportunities. Technology and wfa/wfh have cut down commuting. That suits women. They can multitask more seamlessly with family and work. There are infrastructure constraints in many smaller homes with joint families, but the benefits of hybrid working outweigh the constraints. Besides, a lot of work from home (or anywhere) can be done in a small corner with a laptop or  smartphone. 

Indians have one more advantage in the new work matrix: natural empathy. One reason why Indian-origin CEOs like Sunder Pichai (Google – Alphabet), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Arivind Krishna (IBM) and Shantanu Narayen (Adobe) score over US CEOs is the calm and empathy they bring to the table. 

As Silicon Valley investor Vivek Wadhwa noted presciently in an oped in Hindustan Times on December 6, 2021: “Indians learn to be resilient, battle endless obstacles, and make the most of what they have. Entrepreneurship, along with the creativity and resourcefulness required to deal with all the obstacles, is part of life. These are all traits that any board would recognise – and value – especially when the alternatives are arrogant company founders who believe they are entitled to their jobs.  

“This is what I believe has given Indian CEOs that real advantage. When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, he inherited a toxic culture in a company considered a tech dinosaur. Bill Gates, its founder, had been known for berating employees, and Steve Balimer, who succeeded Gates, continued the hardball business tactics that partners loathed.  Sundar Pichai, too, inherited a company with cultural problems. Google was known for having a permissive workplace culture, where sexual relationships between top executives and employees generated internal tensions. He created a culture with better values.”  

 Empathy and calm are qualities that will increasingly define corporate culture in 2022 and beyond.     

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