Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Work From Home: Thoughts for employers and employees


I have always been a huge votary of the work from home idea.  I have never believed in having office timings, I have not ever bothered if people came into work or not. So long as the work got done, none of this should matter, I would argue.  I believe that people should be mature enough to deliver on the responsibilities assigned to them and that managers should know how to make them accountable.

But alas, that is not how the real world is. It does not have to be that way, but then that is how it is. Most of our companies work in a time clock punching world. We live in a world where HR keeps an eye on how many hours you put in but not whether you did any work during those hours that you clocked.  Much too often to my liking I run into a colleague in the elevator who would tell me that he had to stay late to log the hours that HR expected of him. We live in a world where managers are aware that somebody who clocks the hours may not be delivering but won’t take action until delivery on the task has been compromised. The blame for this would be assigned to everything except the manager’s unwillingness to put in place a system to continuously monitor people for the work they do and not the hours they keep.

Here at IRIS, a company of which I am the Founder & CEO, everybody loves the flexibility that I have ensured is never taken away from them. They love the flexibility of coming to the office when they wish and if they wish, they love the flexibility of being able to spend their entire afternoon at the local mall without being questioned. The managers have stopped criticising me for allowing such flexibility because they too have benefited greatly from it or maybe they simply know that this is a subject on which I am inflexible.

There have been huge abuses of the system. A colleague was granted permission to work from home on the day of his marriage. I learned about it only because I happened to call him for something at the precise time the nuptial vows were being exchanged. Yet another colleague spent a week working from home when she was actually shopping for her wedding. The abuse that left me wondering whether I should laugh or cry was by a colleague on our inbound help desk setup for clients was given permission to work from home when she had exhausted her maternity leave but wanted to be at home for the baby. When asked how she could work from home given her role, her supervisor blamed it on my unwillingness to entertain any discussion on limiting flexibility. 

He is right, because the only time I veto my colleagues is when colleagues curtail such freedom. But he is wrong, because he I never told him to not set up systems to make her accountable. In the 25 years I have been an entrepreneur, my biggest failure has been to get my colleagues to embrace the idea whole heartedly and make it a success. My colleagues in HR don’t take the initiative to roll it out either, they take refuge in my frequent comment that it is up to the line managers to formulate a framework with HR in a supporting role to help with the execution of the system.

That is really the nub of the matter.  Work from home fails because we refuse to even try and measure performance.  It is uncharted territory. But people like status quo and are simply unwilling to tread outside their comfort zones.  Even when some people were willing to explore the idea, they are persuaded by reluctant colleagues who give reasons why it is simply not feasible. I may be the CEO but my writ clearly does not run on this issue. But I continue to persevere.

Because I believe that except in manufacturing companies and services companies where one needs customer facing people, work from home should be possible in almost all other areas. In fact, given the automation that is happening around the world, it may be possible to work from home even in manufacturing companies, with a need to go work only if and when physical attention is needed. A friend of mine consults for a company with a factory in Germany which is controlled from a small office in Powai in Mumbai, he tells me that there are no shop floor workers!!

To make work from home work for the company, managers need to change, managements need to change, the rule book needs to change.  We have to stop looking at employment through the prism of work hours and work days. In a world where the employee can work from anywhere and any time, the work leisure divide is set by the employee and not by the employer. But then it will work only if the employee is mature enough to understand the significance of the flexibility being accorded by the organisation.

The approach to compensation has to undergo a radical transformation. It cannot be a time and material approach to fixing compensation, it would be ideal instead to try and fix compensation based on an estimate of the value of saleable output generated by the employee. It gets tricky when not all output is for immediate sale or when there are people who are not creating output for sale, these have to be dealt differently. In the perfect work from home world, the nature of the contract between an employee and an employee will change.

Many managers hate the idea of allowing their subordinates the opportunity to work from home because they simply are not used to being precise in their instructions to their subordinates. I believe that allowing subordinates to work from home will make a supervisor  better, the operations of businesses will become more efficient.  Meetings will be productive and the respect for each others’ time will increase in tasks that require collaboration.

Work from home will also need fundamental changes in law. I remember a visit a PF inspector paid to our offices in our early days.  He wanted to know why we don’t take the attendance register more seriously than we did.  After listening to my spiel on how I believed in giving my colleagues total freedom to come when they wish and go when they wish and come to office only if they wish to, he told me that the attendance register is actually a right of our staff. He told me that the attendance register was not so much about employers keeping an eye on their staff as it was about the staff having a record to show that they are employed in the firm.

Above all else, the staff need to recognise that it is entirely upto them to make work from home a success.  Companies need to recognise that a work from home possibility will do the company a lot of good. Managers need to recognise that it will make them a lot sharper.

I just hope my managers are listening.


Friday, 27 March 2020

RBI has begun well, but the task is half done

RBI's announcement earlier today is certainly very good for banks. But for RBI's initiatives to actually end up helping the real economy in any significant manner, a lot more needs to be done. 

It is not really a moratorium
Whether or not to extend a moratorium has been left to the banks. What RBI has said is that if a bank reschedules a term loan to a borrower to allow the borrower the flexibility of not paying the next quarterly instalment, the bank need not recognise it as a default. Though if a borrower simply refuses to pay the next instalment, banks get the same benefit of not having to classify it as substandard. 

Similarly, banks have been given the flexibility of  rescheduling the interest dues from borrowers without having to worry about the loan being classified as substandard. The interest is deferred for a quarter but the borrower would probably have to find the resources to pay up thereafter for the bank to escape the requirement of classifying the loan as being in default.

Both of these initiatives help the bank hugely but do little by way of providing succour to the borrower who has to hope that cash flows after a quarter recover enough for things to be back to normal and even better than normal to support the repayment of deferred interest. 

Forbearance must be extended to credit card dues
Forbearance to credit card dues is something RBI may wish to consider. Many MSME promoters use their credit cards to borrow to keep their businesses going. Ironically, while they are able to service the expensive loans that these are, banks find them lacking in credit worthiness to borrow similar amounts of money at lower interest rates! If the forbearance is not extended to credit cards, lakhs of SMEs will be hit very hard. Defaults are inevitable. It is important for RBI to bear in mind that these businesses turned to credit cards because banks turned them away.  

Liquidity is the need of the hour
What is needed is liquidity, what is needed is an infusion of funds as an extra ordinary measure. Until things get back to normal, companies will be incurring much of their regular expenses with no inflows. It is inevitable that this will put many of them in a huge liquidity bind. It is important that these firms, many of whom, are fundamentally sound don't go belly up because of liquidity issues. 

The time is ripe for a new metric: Loan Book Ratio.
Banks have been prescribed several ratios that they need to adhere to and conformity with each of them is non negotiable. SLR or Statutory Liquidity Ratio is about investment by banks in government securities. CRR or Cash Reserve Ratio is about the percentage of balances held in cash by the bank.  Then there is the priority sector metric with sub targets. 

Perhaps, to ensure that RBI gets banks to lend to industry, it is time to impose a Loan Book ratio. The Loan Book Ratio would be the percentage of assets in a bank's book that it has lent to the real economy. 

If the liquidity provided by RBI to banks is used by the latter to buy bonds in the secondary market, it defeats the purpose of increasing liquidity to boost economic activity. It is probably time for banks to report their Loan Book Ratio on a weekly basis so that the transmission takes place. 

Friday, 20 March 2020

Coronavirus: What you can do to help



Coronavirus: What you can do to help

Volunteer.

Whether you are healthy or not. Whether you are a student or a working professional or a business person. Whether you are a man or a woman with two kids to take care of. There is something that each one of us can help with. Because there is much to be done. 

Starting today, 32 of us will be working closely with the staff of the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). You can do the same, with the local government in the place where you live.

What will be doing for them? Several things, starting with these.
  • Today, a few of us will be working alongside NMMC officials to conduct a door to door survey in one locality. 
  • A couple of us will be working with the staff at NMMC HQ to help them get their data organised.
  • Another set of volunteers will be calling every person in home quarantine twice a day, to talk to them, to reassure them, to comfort them and to help them procure essentials.
  • A few of us will be working with the local police to reach out to senior citizens living alone to see if they would like our help to procure food, medicines or any other essentials.
  • We will be reaching out to as many building societies as we possibly can to get them to identify a resource person in their building who we will then connect with the government officials if a need arises.

Through all this, we will be working with the government officials. Our approach is to strengthen their hands by providing more human resources at their disposal.

How can you get started ? I will tell you what I did. I called the Municipal Commissioner. Within an hour he had connected me to three of his officials who have been coordinating with me ever since. I urge you to work with the local authorities.  

I would recommend that your offer will really be useful if you go in a group. It becomes easier for them to coordinate with a group than having to deal with each volunteer individually.

Does this not expose you to risk? Yes it probably does. But then, have you wondered why the civic authorities should put themselves at risk? And no, this is not what they signed up for. 

So, our volunteers will take the same precaution that civic authorities are taking.

Get out to Volunteer.

Remember, there was life before Corona Virus. And there will be life after Corona Virus. Because you would have done something about it.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Should AAP fight elections outside Delhi?

Caught up in the euphoria of its victory in Delhi, AAP has decided to fight local elections across the country if news reports are to be believed. Gopal Rai, a senior leader has made an announcement in as many words.
In Navi Mumbai, where I live, elections to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation will be held on April 10. Even before the Delhi elections AAP announced that they will contest all seats to the NMMC. I will analyse the Gopal Rai announcement by exploring if AAP should contest the elections to NMMC.
First the facts. There are 111 wards that make up the NMMC. 56 seats are reserved for women, 55 are open. So, first things first, AAP needs 111 candidates to fight elections.
Next, it is pertinent to know that there are some 800 booths. Assuming that the party needs to have atleast 1 volunteer per booth, they need 800 booth managers.
What does AAP do to have a reasonable shot at victory? The area has some 1.2 million voters. The biggest ward has 12000 voters, the smallest 8000. The turnout percentage is about 50. Which means that an average of 5000 votes will be cast in each ward. If the unity of the Maha Aghadi holds , there will be two formations pitted against each other. On one side will be the Sena - NCP - Congress combine against the BJP. Assuming a close to even split of votes between the two sides, a candidate of AAP can win with just 2000 votes in a ward. If the Aghadi unity does not hold as I suspect, polling even 1500 votes can get AAP a victory in a ward.
The question then is what will help AP get these votes? Why will 1500 votes go AAP way? Even for the best product in the world with the best marketing strategy, distribution holds the key. AAP's message about good governance will certainly resonate with the local population. But they still need to get 2000 voter to the booths to vote for them. The BJP had 1.10 lakh personnel working on the ground in Delhi backed by a high decibel campaign, yet they lost. The Shiv Sena has over 5000 workers on the ground I am told and have been around for ages. The NCP has lost its force to the BJP but even so, they have over 3000 people on the ground. The Congress has less than 1000.
In sharp contrast, by all accounts AAP has fewer than 100. If that is correct, it would mean that they don't even have enough candidates to field in all the 111 booths, what to speak of having enough booth managers. I am sure that this number will increase if they started a mobilisation drive. But will that get them the numbers they need to put up a decent fight in the elections? One metric my friends in political parties work with is to have 1 mobiliser per 100 votes which can go down to 1 mobiliser for 500 votes if the party is well established locally and is seen a viable alternative.
The damage to AAP will be immeasurable if they lose the elections badly. Imagine losing your deposit in an election where only 2000 votes are required to win. When AAP won the first time in Delhi, they made the huge mistake of thinking it is easy. Arvind Kejriwal allowed his state units to field candidates with catastrophic consequences. The do gooders and well meaning folks in the party with no political sense set the party back by a few years and it is they who were the first to criticise the leadership when the elections did not yield the desired outcome.
I would have though that the lessons from those days have been learned. But I was shocked when AAP fielded candidates in the last Maharashtra assembly elections and cut a sorry figure. I was told that the decision to fight the elections was taken to keep the local cadre motivated. I can think of a hundred other ways of keeping the cadre motivated without having to suffer the ignominy of the defeat inflicted on AAP.
The message of AAP is too powerful to be squandered lightly. But that is exactly what could happen if a decision is taken to fight elections without a strong local organisation. I hope Arvind Kejriwal is listening.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Why India needs to look at Bangladesh very differently


Next year will mark the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose struggles delivered independence for Bangladesh. It provides an opportunity for us in India to learn to appreciate that country better. For what that country stands for. For what their aspirations. For why they are totally deserving and justifiably of India’s respect.

The first description that needs correction is the Indian characterisation of the events of 1971 on the eastern front as an India Pakistan war. It wasn’t.  Instead it should be seen as Bangladesh’s war of independence. Yes, India fought Pakistan. Yes, we sent our army in. Yes, the air force followed thereafter. But let none forget that while 3,900 Indian soldiers died and another 9,851 were wounded, the loss of Bangladeshi life was far more. Some say that the genocide unleashed by Pakistan caused upwards of 3 million deaths. If the quantum of sacrifice made by its people is any criteria, it was clearly Bangladesh’s fight in which India provided substantial assistance with men and material to help the local population capture power.

At the 100th anniversary celebrations that start in March next year, no other country has as much claim to be on the main stage as India. During the 1971 war, only India and Russia were with Bangladesh. China sided with Pakistan but clearly Bangladesh has mended fences with China, with the latter offering to invest huge sums of money in Bangladesh. Even with Pakistan, Bangladesh relations are on even keel as evidenced by the socio cultural interaction between the two countries from time to time. While it is true that the Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League has sided with India on issues involving Pakistan, the same cannot be said of the two main opposition parties, namely, Begum Zia’s BNP or General Ershad’s Jatiya Party, both of whom have given Hasina hell for cosying up to India.

It has been 48 years since independence. For more than half the period, Bangladesh had governments which were not favourably disposed towards having good friendly ties with India even if they may not always been completely inimical. The population of Bangladesh at the time of its independence in 1971 was 65 million, today it is 165 million. Which means that most of the population has no recollection of Mujib and his sacrifices or India’s contribution. The 100th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to tell them about Bangabandhu, his sacrifices and his contribution to the creation of Bangladesh. India would therefore do well to showcase its own role but without making Bangladesh uncomfortable. It is a perfect opportunity for India to pay homage to the memory of the 3 million Bangladeshis who died during the independence struggle. 

It is in India’s interests to do so. Bangabandhu, or friend of Bengal, Mujib wore his Bengali identity proudly on his sleeve. Which is how, even today, the Bengali identity trumps the Muslim identity for most Bangladeshis. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reinforce this in the minds of the post independence generation. From India’s point of view that alone will be enough to provide a bulwark against mass radicalisation of the population. Bangladesh attaches great value to its secular credentials and the fact that there are more than 100 temples where there is daily worship provides testimony to this. Equally important, there is the Gurdwara Nanakshahi, in memory of Guru Nanakji who visited Dhaka in the 16th century. It is important for India to be invested in ensuring that Bangladesh stays secular and does not become a breeding ground for any kind of radicalisation that can hurt India. But to get there, we in India need to change.

The Indian mindset on Bangladesh has to change.  Take the name with anyone and everything you hear is negative. Illegal migration. Basket case. Poor country. Terrorist haven. There is no denying that Bangladesh has its share of problems. But today’s Bangladeshi is a proud Bangladeshi. And there is much for him to be proud of. And he wants to be appreciated for it. With good reason too.

The Brookings Institution calls Bangladesh one of Asia’s most remarkable and unexpected success stories in recent years. “Bangladesh defies economic and political gravity,” screams the Nikkei Asian Review. They are self sufficient in food and earned the world’s respect when they gave shelter to the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar in much the same way India did when millions of Bangladeshis took refuge in India in 1971. Even Pakistan calls Bangladesh a success story, admitting candidly that Bangladesh has done much better than Pakistan itself.

There is more. I did not know until last week that India exports 10 billion US $ of goods and services to Bangladesh and that we run a trade surplus of over 9 billion US $ with them. It means that Bangladesh buys over Rs 70000 crores worth of stuff from us. That is a lot of jobs they are helping us create in India. They deserve our gratitude for this alone. But the story does not end there. In 2017, more than 2.2 lakh Bangladeshis came to India for medical treatment, that number will be much higher by now. They create jobs too. With them come their families. The Indian High commission issued over 15 lakh visas to Bangladeshis annually. I am not sure if there is any other country on earth that sends as many visitors to India. Many of them come to Kolkata for weekend shopping, some have started going to Guwahati after a direct flight was introduced. The impact of these 15 lakh on the Indian economy cannot be overstated. Thank you, Bangladesh. It is high time we acknowledged their positive impact on the Indian economy.  And give them the respect they so rightfully deserve.

If that’s not all, Bangladesh trumps India on several indicators. Bangladeshis’ average life expectancy is now 72 years, compared to 68 years for Indians says the World Bank.  When it comes to banking, only 10.4 percent of Bangladeshi bank accounts are dormant compared to 48 percent of Indian bank accounts. Dormant accounts are those where there has not been a single transaction for a year. When it comes to ready made garments, Bangladesh beats India by a long way.

If none of this resonates with you as being reason enough for Bangladesh to be proud, allow me to remind you of Shakib, whose performance at the World Cup has been nothing short of phenomenal. The success of Shakib has given the young Bangladeshi reason enough to walk with his held high. It is time we in India recognised this and give them the respect that they so rightfully deserve.

Work From Home: Thoughts for employers and employees

I have always been a huge votary of the work from home idea.   I have never believed in having office timings, I have not ever bothered...