Abhishek Bali is the CEO of ZIGRAM, a leading data asset organization. In his current role, Abhishek leads various business initiatives and data solutions that leverage machine learning, artificial intelligence, and deep technology applications, to solve real-world problems. Some of the products & technologies developed by him are in the space of Anti-Money Laundering (AML), Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), KYC/DD, Adverse Media, Sanctions, Cannabis Businesses, High-Risk individuals, and Entity Monitoring.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to deep-seated and tectonic changes in the way humanity approaches life and work. Historically, pandemics have led to such changes across centuries, countries, and civilizations. From the Black Death in Europe to the Spanish Flu and even the HIV/AIDS pandemic, have led to fundamental shifts in the way the human race has evolved. Hence, it would be safe to assume that this will be the case with COVID-19 as well.
The signs for such changes are more apparent than ever in 3 areas – Health, International Trade, and Work. While much has been written, spoken about, and analyzed in the first two, it is the third where big changes are still underway. For many of us, the most apparent change with work has happened, as the environment for employees, workers, and team members has changed from the office to home. Along with that, meetings have transformed – they now happen on our screens instead of in person.
While it is clear that the workplace has changed radically for businesses, what remains to be seen is the impact that it will have on startups and fledgling small businesses in general. Why? Because while these organizations are nimble, fast-moving, and tech-savvy, they are also fragile. This fragility is because startups have limited reserves in terms of cash, resources and while they have flexibility, they also have limited organizational foundations. Therefore, in times of economic, cultural, and geopolitical upheaval, one may come across extensive changes in the startup landscape, along with higher mortality/shutdowns amongst startups.
For those who happen to survive and thrive these changes and their aftermath, there are structural shifts that will occur. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the harbinger for such structural changes within startups and their workplace. While many of these changes are now well established, there are yet others that are in the making.
The most apparent of shifts in the way startups have to deal with remote work. Unlike in the past when it may have been good to have a feature, startups today will have to consider enabling remote work as the default for all their employees. This is because not only are there health concerns with putting all employees and team members in one office/location, with the raging war on talent, it may no longer be possible to retain or attract talent, because, especially in the technology space, where there is a massive war on talent. This has led to higher than ever attrition amongst technology companies. To retain talent, it is now no longer adequate to just offer attractive packages, and ESOPs, but also enable progressive work policies. Hence, hybrid work is here to stay for not only startups but also larger, well-established organizations.
Technology will continue to play an enabler in such shifts, the difference being that, unlike the past, this shift would no longer be an option. The startup will need to quickly invest in technology workspace, communication and collaboration platforms, tools, and technologies such as Zoom, Flock, Slack, Asana, Microsoft teams, etc. While there are free versions of all or most of these technologies, startups will need to quickly build a budget or cost structure to leverage them adequately. The technologies and digital work enablers will play the role of the backbone of an organization that may be working remotely and across different time zones. The physical office will therefore be replaced by the virtual one.
Another major change will be on hierarchies, which until recently, amongst startups, were usually flat and informal. While these worked well in the physical world where in-person interactions, communications, and discussions enabled the quick transfer of information, advice, and decision-making, such flat structures may require a rethink. With remote work taking over from the physical office, the rules of hierarchy will also change. Organizations may create more nuanced hierarchies, layers, and smaller teams to ensure that there is adequate cohesion in such teams. It is human nature that remote workers will feel excluded. One way to create a system and organization to guard against that is to have a more layered structure rather than a flat one.
Creativity in benefits and team engagement will also be evidenced during this time. While benefits, employee engagement, and post-work activities, have been a well-defined space of Human Resources, the focus has almost always been on the physical world. The virtual remote-first working world is yet to have a template or significant research on how online or other benefits, activities and engagements may have a positive impact on people. Hence, we will probably witness a significant amount of experimentation in the types of employee benefits, engagement activities, and other similar programs, so that the appropriate fitment with the online, virtual, and remote work may be assessed.
Finally, the big change will be in the overall workplace culture. Successful startups will need to find a purpose and greater value, beyond just commercial success, funding, and sky-high valuations. Why? Because without the tangibility of the office space, having co-workers around you, bosses to pat your back, and team members to celebrate with, startups will need to infuse their online, virtual, and distant spaces with the intangibility of purpose, vision, and spirit. If you think about it, this is not something new or drastic – the best example of high-performance teams have this done this for decades, if not centuries. I refer to the armed forces, of course. Teams, units, and groups in the army, navy, and air force, are often far-flung, separated by miles of nothingness, mountains, seas, and space – yet they behave, coordinate and exhibit a sense of oneness which is driven by certain purpose.
If one thinks about it carefully and deeply, the workplaces of successful startups in the post-pandemic would do well to look at the principles, guidelines, and the spirit of the armed forces, rather than corporate behemoths. After all, what better example would we have of an organization, which not only survives… but thrives and operates, in an uncertain, stressful and ambiguous world.