Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic | Smita Nair Jain

Writer Author Smita Jain Pen Name Smita Nair Jain

Smita Nair Jain

I once complained that my life was monotonous.

There was a time when the calm in my life was governed by the routine of waking up, checking workmails, working on the important ones with immediacy, organizing home staff to help deliver their work,the showering, dressing, driving to work, working, driving back, sorting the end of day duties on thehome turf, reading, un-winding the spring that got tightly wound up through the day and finallysuccumbing to precious sleep – and all this with a smattering of family time woven in.

But that was before the pandemic and the lockdowns. I now realise that it was the monotony thatbrought in that calm. And I wish my life returned to that monotony.

But as Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but onbuilding the new”.

Towards building this new, as we sit in the first phase of the ‘opening of the Lockdown’ in Hyderabad,(India), I search my soul, work and actions of the past three months and determine that the ‘New’ willperhaps require us to be more engaging, more trusting, more technology driven, more climate friendly,and more cohesive as a ‘one world’ united by our healthcare challenges and financial uncertainties anddivided only by geographical borders

My Leadership Lessons

1. Learning and Accepting that WFH is a reality

While most firms I worked for had ‘Working from Home’ as a documented element in their EmployeeHandbook of Policies, any request for WFH was considered with deep suspicion and almost alwaysgranted as a ‘favor’. I myself often grappled with these requests when these came up frequently fromthe same people – as I primarily did not have a mode of measuring their work output and productivitywhen they did WFH. And I found no pressing need to determine the mode as everyone was to ‘workfrom Office’ as a rule and WFH was a planned, pre-approved exception to that rule.

And even if I wanted to provide flexibility to my team, my onshore clients and stakeholders seldomsupported this due to a multitude of reasons ranging from ‘sensitive data access’, ‘PCI office space’ etc.

The pandemic changed all that. 100% of my team (a fairly large one at that) are fully functional fromtheir homes and meeting productivity targets and sometimes far-exceeding them too.

It took just a couple of hours for the management team and me to figure out work distribution andperformance monitoring and we were all set to migrate overnight from a 100% ‘work in office’ to a100% ‘work from Home’ workforce.

I am in no hurry to get them back to work as we are in no loss while we WFH and my Leaders and I haveunderstood and accepted that ‘Remote Working is not a privilege or special accommodation. It is just away of working.

My own work hours, quantity and quality of work output and engagement with my Direct Reports hasimproved significantly. As the physical distance between us has grown, we strive to be morecollaborative.

2. Attitude embellishes Aptitude

These are difficult times. Many firms may eventually carry out workforce rationalization exercises. Asdistances grow, we must always be present ourselves as and remain flexible, positive and ready to takeon more responsibilities. These will be the traits that Leaders remember while they make the difficultdecision.

How well you do what you do certainly matters. But how you play within the team and outside speaksvolumes about your resilience and personality, qualities that will elongate your employment.

3. Emotional and Organisational Resilience

This is the time for Compassionate Leadership – for – while our team works for us, they also want us toengage with them on what they are going through. Be curious and keen to learn the impact thepandemic is having on each member of the team. Draw them out – without being intrusive – inconversations – especially those – who are silent and introverted as they may not be forthcoming abouttheir personal circumstances.

Leaders must consistently take a hard, rational line of thought to protect the financial performance ofthe organization along with being compassionate towards the workforce

Invest in technology that has proved to be the glue in these times of remote working; re-design businessprocesses to spell ‘simplification’; digitize customer journeys to spell ‘ease’ to customers; and aceeptWFH as a boon to business (for real estate related costs), to employees (for increased work hours andProductivity) and to the world (for a reduced carbon foot print).

4. Egalitarianism at another Level

When I started out in my career there was a vast difference between operating in India and operating inthe West. Having been a part of the offshoring industry almost all my life, I have seen how global clientswere frustrated with India when numerous workdays, sometimes all in a row were severely impacted byevents such as the death of a local politician or a popular actor, by the monsoons, by social unrestfollowing the arrest of a local Leader etcetera. Two barriers to offshoring in the 90s and early 2000s wasterrorism and War – the actual one as well as the mere thought of it.

But all of that changed over the course of time. 9/11 and its aftermath showed that developedgeographies could also be pulled into the trap of terrorism and war. In 2009, when Mumbai roads andrails were flooded for 2 days and I could only have a skeletal strength at work, my UK client did notcomplain as he was stranded at home due to floods too. Today, civic unrests happen in multiplegeographies simultaneously. Clients and firms offshoring to far-away geographies have more first handexperience of these conditions that were once the trademark of only some far-away countries.

This pandemic takes egalitarianism to another level, debunking oft-proved theories around sicknessrising and thriving in poor economies, unhygienic conditions etcetra.

We are in the period of ‘emergency to the power of infinity’ today when it comes to climatic change andits impact on the world’s people and its economy and repeated calamities like this will be detrimental tobusiness and industry.

This is the time for the world’s industry and corporate leadership to exploit this egalitarianism to growas ‘OneForce’ and influence the global political leadership’s thoughts and actions on climate change.

It will be a shame if we waste an opportunity for a second chance.

Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: June 07, 2020)

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