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For over a month, business at BRAC’s head office is continuing as usual – entirely from home.
BRAC was one of the first organisations in Bangladesh to implement a work from home policy for its head office (2,000+ staff). In addition to contributing to slowing the spread, this decision maximised employee safety and set an example for other organisations in Bangladesh. Employees have honoured the decision with respect and performance.
This exchange of loyalty is one of the reasons why BRAC is where it is now and will continue to go for miles more. It didn’t happen by accident, though.
Commuting to work every day in a mobile microwave jolting every 10 minutes for three hours is no fun. Even though BRAC is ahead of its time in many ways, legacy mindsets still exist. Working from home, until COVID-19, was off-limits for BRAC staff, regardless of the benefits (savings in building space, rent, utilities, reduction of commute, reduction in carbon footprint, reduction in traffic jams, savings in employees’ time).
It was not just BRAC. In Bangladesh, formal work means an office. Most people live with extended family, and do not have the space or environment for a home office. Culturally, staying home means you have time off. Most supervisors lack experience managing remote teams.
What we are seeing at BRAC though is that productivity has actually amplified. The speed and quality of work has increased. Staff are reporting that they are seeing more of each other, that their colleagues and supervisors are more accessible and that they feel more liable to deliver results. Of course it is not all fun and games – we are in a pandemic and many are suffering indescribably, but we are seeing that our head office staff can be just as productive at tackling this pandemic from outside our office as we would be inside it.
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We are seeing supervisors allocating tasks and focus on taking stock of deliverables rather than facetime. This management style was largely missing before the pandemic, but a sense of ownership has been cascaded down and supervisors are now being even more of their roles than they were in the office.
Getting into work from home mode was rapid. In less than 24 hours’ notice, surveys on employee home connectivity, technical application setups, device readiness and manuals for using various tools for collaboration were made. Policies on how a team would be monitored and supervised from a distance were decided and disseminated. How vendors would be managed, how procurement would continue, how finance and HR would be organised were all sorted.
Things have continued to move fast. Internal approvals, which required hard copy signatures, are now being approved through official emails. Collaborations are happening in huge numbers between the head office and field offices through video conferences and shared drives.
Some cracks still exist. Something as simple as muting the microphone in group meetings to avoid background noise is still a challenge, and the issue of who talks when is still a mystery, but with time these wrinkles will iron themselves out.
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The success of working from home shows that BRAC’s soul does not rely on having a physical base. Employees’ dedication towards BRAC’s mission – particularly during a global crisis – sheds light on how when the situation calls for it, management will create mechanisms to monitor work remotely, and employees will innovate to get things done in new ways.
Looking back, some of the things which made this rollout a success include:
Working from home must place strong emphasis on monitoring people’s mental wellbeing. Different leaders are putting different initiatives in place, such as virtual coffee breaks, online team-building activities and creative sessions. All employees have access to counselling. We are all endeavouring to ensure that no one feels that they are expected to work around the clock. We will also be looking into specific leadership courses on remote team management to effectively encourage work-life balance.
In the days to come, the effectiveness of working from home calls for serious consideration to become recognised practice. COVID-19 is proving that, culturally and capacity-wise, it is an effective way of increasing employee productivity. All that is needed is some device augmentation, home connectivity, and awareness on electronic communication etiquettes.
Shahriar Hoque is Associate Director, Technology at BRAC. Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications. Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager at BRAC Communications.