Telenor’s Senior Research Scientist Talks to ProPakistani about the Challenges of the New Workday

In most countries, the new workday is not what it was two years ago. With the arrival of vaccines and mass inoculation, things continue to cautiously get back on track. While many big companies – the likes of Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and more – offered a completely remote or hybrid working model, others may not be fully comfortable with their employees working away from the office.

But as the smoke clears over the pandemic with offices trying to resume the ‘old normal’, unforeseen challenges are surfacing. Workers, now used to working remotely, don’t seem ready to give up the flexibility. Having realized the redundancy of such hassles as daily commute to work and physical presence at the workplace, employees have been hesitant in rejoining the office full-time.

One of the results is the so-called ‘great resignation’ where record numbers of people are leaving their jobs in the post-Covid world. This has prompted companies to navigate the ripple effects of the pandemic and re-evaluate how to retain talent. And those who aren’t quitting want at least a hybrid model where they can continue the work-life balance they’re now used to.

This, and many other challenges are faced by employers globally today. To discuss the new work day and its many problems, Founder & CEO of ProPakistani, Aamir Atta, got a chance to sit with Telenor’s Senior Research Scientist, Jarle Hildrum, and get his insights into the matter.

Here’s how the talk unfolded:

Aamir Attaa: Please summarize the post-pandemic workday and its challenges for us. As well as the new strategies that companies are adopting to tackle them.

Jarle Hildrum: First, I want to stress that for many jobs, the post-pandemic working day will be very similar to the pre-pandemic one. People working in healthcare and manufacturing will, for instance, continue their jobs without much change. We will still need to go to the hospital when we are ill, and most production requires that there are people present.

For other jobs, I think there will be quite large changes. For those who work in offices, there are three things that will characterize the post-pandemic working day:

  • The first concerns where people do their work. They will split the working time between the office, the home, and possibly a third location like a co-working space close to their homes. The global average seems to be converging on 2 days working from home.

One challenge with this is that it will probably not be random who will come into the office, and who will stay home more. For instance, we know that managers will come in more often (due to the nature of their jobs). Finally, we know that there is a risk that those who are often co-present with the boss will, on average, be promoted faster, than those who work often from home. So the problem is that this can create an inequality problem down the road.

To tackle this potential problem, we at Telenor are trying to understand who is coming into the office more often (to ascertain whether this is actually a problem) and also train managers so that they do not make biased decisions about promotions or other rewards.

  • The second concerns when people do their work. Many people have discovered that they are more productive if they alternate between work tasks and private tasks through the length of the day.

One challenge related to this is the fact that some people have difficulty separating work time and private home time (in a flexible work situation). As there is no externally imposed boundary anymore, like the home-office commute, many people have trouble stopping working. This can create problems of overwork and fatigue down the road.

Companies are trying to tackle this by restricting the number of late meetings, as well as telling managers not to give employees tasks in the evenings or weekends. In addition, some companies provide time management training to employees.

  • The third concerns how people do their work. During the pandemic, people were forced to gain new skills in digital collaboration. People will evolve these skills further into the post-pandemic working day. We will see a lot more use of digital tools in the coming years.

A challenge related to this is that there will be a lot more hybrid meetings, where some people gather together in a meeting room at the office and some people call in from home. The problem with this type of meeting is that it is very easy to exclude those who are calling in for important information.

To tackle this, companies are trying to develop better tools, rules, and behaviors for hybrid meetings. For instance, at Telenor, we have 8 rules for how to run a successful hybrid meeting, where there are tasks for both the meeting leader, those present in the meeting room, and those calling in.

Aamir Attaa: The new working day may be different. But the post-Covid economy isn’t very friendly either. Why then, in your view, is there a sharp growth in voluntary resignations?

Jarle Hildrum: I think there are two reasons why there is a sharp growth in voluntary resignations:

  • The first is that the pandemic and the lockdowns have given many people time to think about whether they have the right job. A recent study from Stanford suggests that a key reason people want a change is that they feel their current employer does not give them enough flexibility and opportunity to develop and improve as employees and individuals. They want a better match between their own values and aspirations, and what the company can offer. They also want more freedom to work from home.

At Telenor, we are addressing this by strongly emphasizing learning opportunities at the job. We are investing heavily in education and training programs that employees can pursue while doing their job. We even have something called the 40-hour challenge where each employee is expected to spend at least 40 hours of their working time every year on upgrading their own skills through our education offerings.

  • The second reason is that after having worked primarily from home for 18 months, people have acquired new working habits connected to the home environment and they have gotten used to the luxury of not having to commute (especially so in the big cities). There is recent evidence from Stanford University showing that up to 40% of university graduates are considering changing jobs in the US market because they want more flexibility and freedom to work from home.

At Telenor, we have addressed this by stating publicly that we will give employees quite extensive flexibility and the opportunity to work from home on a permanent basis.

Aamir Attaa: Some studies show that employees have been struggling with loneliness and depression because of the pandemic. Struggles linked to burnout, unsustainable workloads, etc. have been reported. Why, in such a scenario, are people reluctant to go back to the office?

Jarle Hildrum: People are reluctant to come back to the office because there are so many benefits of working from home. Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman has shown that one of the greatest pains that an average adult experiences during the day is the commute.

Just having the opportunity to avoid the commute is reason enough for many people to stay home, in spite of the disadvantages. On top of this, there are several other advantages like the opportunity to avoid all the disturbances and chatting one usually encounters in an office. It gives people more time to concentrate.

At Telenor, we are trying to counter this problem in two ways. We work closely with mental health practitioners who are helping us with information about self-care to employees. We are also instructing all leaders to stay closely in touch with their team members making sure that they are doing well.

Aamir Attaa: Many employers, especially in Pakistan, now want the workforce back in the office but not everyone is comfortable with that idea. What, in your view, should be the right way for employers to return to the ‘old normal’?

Jarle Hildrum: At Telenor, we believe that the right way to return to the old office normal is a lot about good leadership. We are committed to giving our employees more flexibility and freedom to do their jobs, but we also need to be sure we deliver quality services to the customers.

We have a framework to approach that, called Tight-Loose-Tight. In short, this is freedom under responsibility put into a system:

So the first “tight” means that we expect leaders to set really clear goals and explain the purpose of these goals to the employees. “Loose” means that once these goals are set, we let the employees find out how to solve the tasks and reach the goals. This is where we will allow people to work from home and with flexible hours. The final “tight” is that we expect leaders to closely monitor and evaluate the results, making sure they are aligned with the goals. We believe that high flexibility combined with “Tight-Loose-Tight” is the right way forward.

Beyond this, I would say it is important to acknowledge the local culture and context of the companies there.

I do believe that there will be increasing demands from the employees in Pakistan to have more freedom and flexibility to work from home. Companies that are not willing to grant this will lose some of their talents to companies that give more flexibility.

For instance, because of the rapid acceleration of digital skills and the experience with working from home gained during the pandemic, many Pakistani employees can now take jobs in foreign companies and work fully virtually from their homes. So the competition for talent will be harder and giving flexibility will be an important asset.

If and when Pakistani companies choose to give more flexibility and freedom to their employees, they should also take care of their leaders. I think that for many leaders, the prospect of having their team-members work from home a large part of the time can feel very discomforting for some time.

For a manager who is used to leading his or her team through a daily co-located dialogue, it can be very hard to get used to a situation where this is not so. These leaders will need good coaching and training, and they will need time to adapt. They will also need good tools to set clear goals and follow these up in a hybrid environment.

Aamir Attaa: Do you not agree that creative tasks are performed better in silos? If not, what’s the right way for employers to accommodate introverted employees and help them achieve their full potential?

Jarle Hildrum: I definitely do not agree that creative tasks are better performed in silos. A long line of research has shown that creativity thrives when people with different perspectives and ideas have ample opportunity to randomly meet and combine their knowledge. The potential for new ideas is smaller in “siloed communication” where people predominantly communicate with others who are relatively like themselves.

One potential challenge that flexibility and home-office bring is that introverts (as well as other groups) are more likely to stay home than extroverts. This is bad for everybody. Anyone who has been in a meeting room with only extroverts knows that it often ends up in a shouting contest to be heard. At the same time, having the introverts stay home means that they will not randomly meet colleagues with different perspectives at the workplace – so their potential to be creative will be smaller.

There are several ways of tackling this: One way is to restrict the flexibility so that all employees, or at least employees from a set of diverse teams, come into the office at one or more given days in the week. This is the solution chosen by Apple.

Tim Cook has ordered all employees – extroverts and introverts alike – to come into the office three regular days a week precisely to ensure that communication does not get siloed. At Telenor, we have chosen a different solution where teams decide which days all members should come to the office. This solves some of the problems, as the introverts will have to come in and interact with the others.

Aamir Attaa: Telenor Pakistan has had a hybrid working model for a long time even before the pandemic, with people working from home two days a week. Is this the kind of model that people are demanding?

Jarle Hildrum: I would say yes. It is a model that they want and that they will get. We just conducted a large employee survey, showing that “flexibility” is one of the things the employees value most at Telenor Pakistan. We are experimenting with new ways of organizing the post-pandemic working day, and we change and improve as we move along.