Work From Home concept, an ideal model for the future | Sunday Observer

Work From Home concept, an ideal model for the future

27 December, 2020
Wasanatha Heenatigala
Wasanatha Heenatigala

The Work From Home (WHF) model varies from person to person. Space limitations at residences is an issue in Sri Lanka. However, the most ideal set-up is allocating a separate location with as little as possible disturbances. The employer must provide the facilities needed for the employee to function smoothly, said Managing Director and CEO of AkzoNobel Paints Lanka, Wasanatha Heenatigala.

In an interview with Sunday Observer Business, Heenatigala, who holds a Master’s degree in Business Management from the University of Wales and has over 25 years of experience in marketing and management in multinational organisations in Sri Lanka, outlines his views on the ‘Work From Home’ model in Sri Lanka.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Akzonobel, as we know, is the largest paint coating manufacturer in the world. Can you briefly tell our patrons the global presence of the company and your operation in Sri Lanka?

A. As you said, AkzoNobel is the world’s largest coatings manufacturer based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands with over 55,000 employees worldwide, operating in 80 countries. AkzoNobel also is a fortune 500 company with a consistent ranking as the leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Our paint ‘Dulux’ is accepted as one of the best in the world for quality.

Q: Some of the organisations in Sri Lanka have already started practising the ‘Work From Home’ (WFH) model due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the circumstances, will the WFH model be continued by the corporate sector into the future?

A: Organisations have already identified and practically experienced the WFH that has many positive benefits. Also, most of the employees are more content to be at home if the employer provides adequate facilities. Besides, most of the renowned and successful corporates in the world have already transformed to remote working. Therefore, there is a high probability that the Sri Lankan corporate sector will continue to practise the model indefinitely.

Q: What are the most beneficial features of WFH for employees and employers?

A: As for employees, the more important segment, the home working environment offers flexibility in working arrangements. It also can offer solutions to some of the personal issues. (Certainly, the management needs to inculcate discipline in WFH staff). Productivity is increased to an extent. There are fewer interruptions when at home which can enhance efficiency. At this juncture where the pandemic is active, dangers of contamination during commuting to the office can completely be cut off by staying at home.

In comparison, the employers will be able to save substantially on expenditure such as office space, rents, electricity, fuel expenses, staff welfare expenses, and so forth.

Q: You have already started the WFH method in your office. What are the limitations you have encountered in your transformation?

A: Infrastructure facilities such as the number of computers/laptops needed, uninterrupted network, introducing new software solutions were initial burdens although they were comparatively negligible. However, we had to prepare the staff not only in using new methods but also to change their mindset to conform to the change. We have learnt that the home atmosphere must be in line with the workload and the nature of work of each of the staff members. After identifying these negative factors we provided adequate guidance to the staff.

Q: Even though the work from home model is mutually beneficial, it is still alien to many Sri Lankan employees. How can we overcome this phenomenon?

A: I think the WHF model varies from person to person. Space limitations at residences is an issue in Sri Lanka. However, the most ideal set-up is allocating a separate location with as little as possible disturbances. The employer then must provide whatever the facilities needed for the employee to function smoothly.

The employers should pre-plan and make sure that the time-slots allocated for online meetings, discussions, or even friendly powwows are effective and productive. I think even the children will become accustomed to the new settings automatically. Parents who are engaged in WFH must train their children to refrain from interrupting.

Q: What are the other barriers you have encountered during the setting-up period?

A: We have come across difficulties in employee engagement, team bonding, and mental stress due to limitations on work in the home atmosphere, loneliness, boredom, low energy as the main areas that need the focus of the management. However, we have overcome these hindrances successfully.

Q: How did you overcome these obstructions?

A: At Akzonobel, initially we arranged all communications on video platforms for better human connections. We also organised a “Virtual cup of tea”, a session organised by the line manager or sector heads online for a Café Chit Chat, strictly nothing about business, but to share how they spent time at home.

These sessions allowed employees to share their thoughts, views, and feedback on specific topics such as cooking experiences, singing with family members, and so forth. One of the themes set for the session is “Your Covid-19 Sentiment”.

We use the technology via apps to connect your own team in the office to engage. For instance, last month, we launched the “ACTIVE” campaign to encourage staff around the world to stay active. It’s a walking competition i.e. the number of steps walked by individuals each day that can be seen by the group.

We also have Introduced tools to support the health and well-being of staff such as wellness checkpoints, lifestyle apps, etc. we have introduced online learning for such as AkzoNobel Academy, Percipio, SuccessFactors, iLearn which are all online intranet facilities. All employees were provided access to bite-sized learning modules and encouraged to use this time to upskill themselves.

Q: Knowing the behaviour of some of the employees, how can you ensure the maximisation of productivity?

A: Of course the supervision and monitoring can be done. However, in this context, we arranged a job description with each employee, agreed, and signed at the beginning of the year when we started the process of WFH.

We monitor the estimated time needed to conclude the job and arrive at the number of hours required to perform the duty, ensuring the individual has got 8 hours of work during the working days of the month. We also have the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and key activities to perform with regular reviews usually a weekly update on the progress of their work.

Q: Any final comments?

My most important message and request are that the MSMEs in Sri Lanka make a major portion of contribution to the national economy to get themselves accustomed and start practicing the WFH work model. This is a national need. The government must make sure that they provide the maximum assistance and encouragement to the MSME sector to set-up this mutually beneficial model.

It’s a new learning process for both employers and employees. It is also an opportunity for all of us. I think we need to be agile and be ready for change. It’s a new culture that must be learnt and adapt fast. Also, I believe that employee commitment and integrity are a must to make this a success.

Similarly, the employer also must trust employees, not to have a second guess, stereotyping, or wrong perceptions, and establish a culture of mutual confidence. Also, transparency must be maintained clearly and truthfully. Extending and restoring trust is all about our consistent behavior. We can change behavior if we have a strong sense of purpose ‘why we want to do so’. This can easily be achieved through a couple of regular workshops with the employees.

Further, the new way of working will be the most cost-effective method for both employee and employer as we have already experienced in real life during the past ten months. This year has been difficult for Sri Lankan companies due to the pandemic. Therefore, the business sector must recoup the lost time, revenue, and profits by introducing WFH model as a direct cost saving initiative.