Preparing for Post-Covid Work Life

Corporate culture is guaranteed not to let any opportunity slip by and the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly no exception. In fact, I am tempted to say that the pandemic itself is not a blot, not even a dot, on corporate ingenuity.

While I agree that dealing with the impact of the pandemic on the economy, work place and life in general is a very serious affair, one cannot help but notice the feverish pitch with which different sections of companies – not just the company where (you think)  you work – trip over the feet of one another in getting you ready!

We went over the communications circus practiced with great vigor during the lockdown but the effort aimed at getting-back-to-near-normal-work seems to be even better, or worse, depending on which side you are in. There are elaborate emails, illustrative diagrams and, of course, the inescapable zoom calls to describe in great detail every square inch of the repurposed office space, which is beginning to look like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from different puzzles mixed up.

Then there are the excruciating instructions on how to enter and exit the building and various sections of the office through mind boggling one-way lanes wherein one wrong turn might mean having to exit the building and start over. And, in some strange combinations of one-way traffic lanes inside the office, you may find yourself incapable of accessing the toilet in a hurry.

It looks like, at any point in time, no one will be more than 6 feet away from one of the sanitizer stations, which may quickly be replacing flower pots and fire extinguishers stuck to the wall. Comprehensive scheduling systems are being put in place to reserve your toilet breaks; and meal breaks are strongly discouraged. The most optimal scheduling algorithms ensure that no two people working in the same department or a project are in the office on the same day, thus effectively rendering the office to be another remote location.

Paperless offices may at last be really coming into vogue. Post-it stickers and other forms of stationery will be removed from circulation. Incoming mail, if at all permitted by your office rules, will be quarantined to a point in time where the contents become redundant. Birthday parties, the life blood of office culture, might be a thing of the past. Meeting durations may blissfully be limited to fifteen minutes, the maximum recommended time between successive hand washes.

All said and done, the corporate world is not going to allow itself to be outmaneuvered by silly pandemics!

The Dotted (line) Company

Geometry seems to be an integral part of the corporate world as we have seen in some of our earlier analysis. But nothing has been as cunningly used, with (un)predictable effect, as the dotted line. Early novices in the corporate world created the concept of defining and drawing an organization structure as a chart containing a series of parent-child relationship, connected using a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines.  Modern day management gurus have successfully neutralized the structure, and any discipline represented by such structures, by introducing the ubiquitous dotted line!

For the uninitiated, in an organization chart, a dotted line, in its simplest sense, represents an informal reporting relationship. But, before you get your hopes high regarding your understanding, let me warn you that there is a lot more unwritten, implied meaning to be derived by reading between the lines (pun intended). A dotted line serves various purposes, chief amongst them being to confuse the structure by diluting authority and responsibility, the cornerstones of an organization structure.

For example, in a company that has multiple manufacturing units at different locations, there is a finance department in each location reporting to the General Manager of the respective unit. At the same time, the head of finance at each location has a – you guessed it – dotted line relationship with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) operating out of the Head Office.  The CFO could use the dotted lines as strings to play on the puppets attached at the end. This informal structure serves as the recipe for conflicts in priorities, daily activities and everything in between for the local finance departments who are forced to spend all their time managing a major standoff between their solid and dotted lines!

To understand the full power and destruction potential of the dotted mode of operation, listen to this conversation in a team meeting on an IT project.

Cindy (Project Manager)(trying to keep the overall project on track): I understand that the requirements have been gathered from all user departments. So, we can proceed with ……….

Jim (senior team member): Yes, Cindy, I believe we have completed the scope definition for the system.

Ron (HR specialist): Hold on a second. We have not fully vetted the legal requirements affecting part-time labor. We need to analyze those.

Cindy: But Ron, this issue has been raised many times in the past three months – why was no action taken to finalize legal requirements?

Ron: Cindy, I have been deputed to this project from HR, so I only have a dotted line relationship with you, the PM. I was ……

Cindy: But what does that have to do with you completing the requirements analysis, now that you have been on the project for three months?

Ron: I needed to ask for an additional resource from Legal to help with this analysis but since I only have a dotted line to you, I could not make that request to you.

Cindy: For God’s sake, why could you not ask your own HR manager that you needed help?

Ron: It is complicated – since I was temporarily assigned to you, my direct, solid line reporting within my department was suspended for the duration of the project – preventing me from placing any requests and so…

Cindy (exasperated): Why could you not have brought this up months ago?

Ron: I was still new in the company and was undergoing orientation from the Training department on all the dotted line relationships that I was part of.

The Plan-B Syndrome

“But, what is your Plan-B for this?”

This single sentence could nullify all discussions and decisions painstakingly made over a three hour meeting and render null and void days and months of planning for a new initiative. Hearing this dreaded question in the middle of a discussion is like being handed down the death sentence.

For the uninitiated audience, let it be known that ‘Plan B’ is corporate lingo for ‘alternative solution’ or ‘safety measure’ while attempting to do something new. ‘Rollback strategy’ and ‘failsafe mechanism’ are some alternative references (Plan-B?) to the said terminology.

While planning implementation of a new employee leave/ vacation management system, after hearing the 100-step process, with built-in measures to correct any mis-steps, from the IT department, the HR manager could easily put a spoke by asking, “But, what is your Plan-B?”.  The conversation could then go on somewhat like this:

IT Manager: Er….. if you are asking about something going wrong, we have built in measures to correct and recover each step…. And, we…….

HR Manager: You don’t seem to understand. What if the system just does not come up?

IT Manager: We have tested it for three times the expected load and we have mirrored the system for disaster recovery……

HR Manager (looking exasperated): You don’t seem to have taken into account the organizational catastrophe of this system not being available for logging vacation time. What about employee morale under such circumstances?

IT Manager (looking exhausted): M’me, we have gone through these things several times with your team. We all have agreed that your existing paper-based records can be used for some more time, if needed. I am not sure what more we need to do.

HR Manager: But you don’t have a clearly defined Plan-B. Going back to manual records is demoralizing. What if the system fails after all manual records have been  destroyed? I must review this with senior management before I can agree to go ahead with Plan-A (your new system).

Thus comes to an end one of many new initiatives in an organization where the introduction of a new system is put on hold or buried in a coffin for lack of an imaginary alternative that is not needed.

Carrot and Stick – or Mashed Potato

Everyone is familiar with the good old concept of carrot and/or stick – the act of cajoling someone to do something through a reward (carrot) and/or with the threat of punishment (stick). As children, we have all gone through the phase of adjusting our actions and behavior based on the expected use of this technique by our parents.

Like with everything else, the corporate world takes this phenomenon to a new level. There are managers who have learnt and (im)perfected this art through full-time courses in business schools, company-sponsored workshops and seminars, miracles producing ‘learn leadership in 30 days’ crash courses or simply through word of mouth from colleagues.

A savvy software development manager, supervising a group of developers in a large corporation, practices this technique like witchcraft. She announces to the team that the entire group would go on a cruise if the project is completed even one day (rephrase this as ‘one minute’ if you want to take this down to the wire) ahead of schedule. While the whole group kicks into a high degree of frenzy, I mean motivation, there are the habitual slackers who spoil the fun – net result is a non-cruise. The manager, annoyed at the delays and the effect on her reputation in the company, wields the stick and cancels pre-approved vacations, even for the good performers.

In the next iteration (software development is nothing but an endless series of failed iterations, under the modern day principle of failing quickly), very few developers bother to work hard and finish their tasks on time, assuming that the group will be late anyway.  The manager, however, selectively rewards the ones who finish their individual tasks on time. She also does not pull up those who are late thus sending mixed and confusing signals like a set of faulty lights at a traffic junction.

The group of developers are now in a state of confusion, to say the least. Those who could perform better but did not do so are fretting and fuming and decide to rebel and sabotage the next project. They promote wrong assumptions and deliberately mislead others about the features of the next software application being developed by their team, with the result that the entire system is scrapped by senior management and the whole department severely reprimanded.

Thus, the ingenious and cunning, though ineffective, use of the carrot-and-stick principle results in a mushy, unpalatable mashed potato!

All Hands On Deck

It is Friday evening and the fuse goes off. “I want all hands on deck – stat; no excuses” bellows the Chief Operating Officer, currently Dan (in a ‘dynamic’ organization one needs to keep track of these positions in real time). Apparently things are fast approaching the point of no return with respect to the launch of the company’s new web site.

In line with the corporate principle that ‘all hands on deck’ does not necessarily mean ‘all relevant hands on deck’, the executive assistant to the COO, just bidding goodbye to her weekend plans, rounds up the usual (irrelevant) suspects – Director Purchasing, Director Transport, Admin Assistant in charge of the Cafeteria, Vice President Legal and the Manager Accounts (since the CFO could not be traced after several phone calls). In parallel, the Project Manager in charge of completing the new web site, Helen, trying her best to get everything ready for a timely launch by Sunday night, gets the summons from the COO’s office and asks all her team members – programmers, web designers, database administrators and others – to stop their work and report to the control tower, sorry, control room.

Let us pretend to be a fly on the wall in the control room and listen in.

COO: Thanks for responding to the call quickly. And thanks to our Admin department, pizza and coffee will be served round the clock. We will not leave this room till we have the new web site up and running.

Director, Transport: We have three cars waiting at our disposal for all emergencies including hospitalization, if necessary, for everyone present here as well as their respective families.

Manager, Accounts: The CFO has specially cleared funds for rearranging any travel and other plans that may need to be rescheduled for people who have graciously agreed to jump into this crisis.

Programmer-1 (looking at his code on his laptop and thinking….): What the f…. is the problem with these guys?

Project Manager (to the COO): Sir, what seems to be the problem?

COO (waving a piece of paper): Helen, what do you mean? You just reported that there are still 10 major bugs and 2 ½ (two and a half?) minor issues with the web site.

(All programmers and technical people are on edge now)

Project Manager: But, sir …..

COO: Cool guys. We are all in this together. I am not blaming anyone. It is time for true teamwork.

VP, Legal: That is right, Dan. No sweat. Though the next shareholders meeting is just round the corner – (looking at his calendar) in six months – I am sure we can launch the new web site in time.

Programmer-1: (looking up from his laptop, barely able to contain himself, and thinking ….) Are you kidding me?

Project Manager (handing over a freshly printed sheet of paper to the COO): I think you were referring to an old status report. Here is the current status. All issues have been resolved and we have finished our final integration testing. We were just taking a backup of the old web site when you called. We are all set and good to go.

COO (with a triumphant look): Fantastic news. I knew I could always depend on the team. Thanks, everyone. Please feel free to take the remaining pizza home.