Challenges of Working from Home

Written by Anum Imran Mir 11:48 am Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Challenges of Working from Home: Analyzing Engro Fertilizers in the Pandemic

The social and economic challenges introduced by COVID-19 have forced numerous small and large businesses to fold. Yet, despite these challenges, many organizations from different industries have persevered by evolving. The author, Anum Imran Mir, focuses on organizational resilience and addresses what makes a business remain afloat during a global pandemic. Through the primary data collected from the employees of Engro Fertilizers Limited (a Pakistani company operating in the agricultural sector) via questionnaires and interviews, she explains the challenges of working from home and the factors that contributed towards (and hindered) organizational resilience.
About the Author(s)
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Anum Imran Mir is a mother of three kids and a homemaker. She is pursuing her dream of completing her education and making a difference for her country. She has a master's degree in human resource management and is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Greenwich University, Karachi.

Abstract

The coronavirus pandemic was a public emergency that challenged the economic and organizational structures of not just businesses but countries. The labor market was tested and numerous organizations folded business during 2020. Apart from economic and social hurdles, the pandemic brought about individual destruction in terms of psychological trauma and stress. Moreover, since people have been working from home due to the pandemic, they’ve been subjected to even more challenges.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze what made businesses resilient in the wake of the pandemic, if working from home, albeit its challenges, proved to be an essential method of keeping the businesses alive while providing security to employees.

The specific observation for the paper focused on the types of businesses that remained afloat during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and how it was possible for them to hold their ground. The organizational resilience shifted from office attendance to efficiently using remote personnel to conduct business dealings actively.

Introduction

The first case of the coronavirus or COVID-19 was reported in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei Province in China. Since then, the spread of this virus has been global and so far there have been millions of fatalities, while many people all over the world have contracted this virus. While the scope of this paper is to understand the aftermath of this pandemic in terms of organizational resilience, it is important to mention that analysts and health workers believe that this virus will remain for many years to come.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has taught us numerous things in various fields of life. Corporate leaders and economic game-changers had to reshape their strategies to face this global emergency. Borders of countries closed down, bringing trade to a halt. From national to individual levels, the idea of survival changed to rely on personal resources rather than depending on external ones.

In Pakistan, the various industries witnessed drastic economic crashes, especially the entertainment industry, tourism industry, and restaurants. The stock markets crashed while investment in real estate and foreign currencies dropped drastically. On the contrary, many businesses exploited the changes brought due to restrictions amid COVID-19 to their benefit.

On an individual level, people relied more on natural sources for foods such as kitchen gardens, organic farms, and small dairy businesses. However, the work front at corporate levels was also adapting fast to the new “normal” of remote working models. Working from home became a concept that was earlier perceived as a lower form of work commitment.

Very few from multinational corporations, and safely none from traditional organizations, encouraged employees to work from their homes until the year 2020. Whereas keeping view of long potential health hazards and general economic downturn, some organizations rushed toward cost-cutting strategies and some tried to find ways to pass through these difficult times by changing their ways of doing business (Gurchiek, 2020).

Various types of business models were considered and analyzed to see which ones prospered, despite massive lockdowns, and which businesses had to lay off employees due to staggering drops in profits and a dilapidating economy. The pandemic taught people a lesson to maximize output without preferring physical congregation, the mental powers combined well in some organizations. This paper will help understand the reason for this maximization and the factors that led to a stronger workforce.

Methodology

The scope of this paper is to study the available data of some businesses to understand how they managed to see an improvement during the pandemic. The employment policies, salary reinforcements, pay cuts, the general work atmosphere created through remote working, and the challenges of working from home will be analyzed in it.

For that, an informal survey using open-ended questionnaires was conducted among 10 employees of a company, where 25% attendance was allowed. Out of these 10 employees, two were from top management, two were from the middle-tier of management, and six were from the intermediate level i.e supervisor, shift in-charge, and distributors.

In conclusion, we shall derive the inference of organizational resilience and the “work from home” trend that has become a new normal. This study would also discuss how the employee management strategies changed and how profitability was impacted while remote working models and other significant changes were rather accepted than voluntarily adopted.

Data Collection and Questionnaire Details

The questionnaire was emailed to some employees while others wanted to narrate their answers as we filled the questionnaire on their behalf. The questions that were included, along with their answers, are as follows:

  • When the lockdown was imposed, were you asked to visit the office?

The middle and top management personnel said that they were working from home completely. However, supervisors and plant-related employees said that they were assigned days when they had to go only for a limited number of hours and not a full day.

  • How many hours did you work from home?

The senior management personnel felt that they were working longer than before as they conducted meetings online till mid-day and then had to remain available on email so that the supervisors and lower staff, that was working due to shift timing alterations, could reach them at any time.

  • Was it easy to shift to the “work from home” model?

The regional sales managers, national sales team members, and sales team personnel said that they required some time to get used to the new model of work. One of the main challenges faced by most of the management employees, in working from home, was that they could not concentrate on their work with the family in the same vicinity.

The junior employees who worked on the production plant said that they did not adapt to the new model, as they had to go to the factory for a few hours and the commute was long and not worth the few hours of work done at the factory. At home, they experienced issues with connectivity and could not communicate with the distributors and field workers. The field workers, like area sales managers or distributors, suffered due to a lack of communication with their office due to poor Internet connectivity in the smaller cities and villages.

  • What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge for senior managers was to convey instructions to their subordinates in other cities, who were given different timings to work at the factory units. One employee said that for him, working from home was the biggest challenge in itself due to family interference, as a small house does not allow an individual to dedicate one room for office work only. He also said that delivering documents or reports was also a challenge as sometimes during the day, the Internet connection was lost and the work lost momentum.

  • Do you feel you were able to do well in terms of connecting with counterparts and teams?
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Again the answer to this question was varied according to the level of employment. The top tier managers were better connected as they had a telephone link as well as better Internet connections to communicate with their counterparts. However, communication with junior officials in the field or in the factory was slightly compromised.

Teams were often gathered for a longer period as after working hours, some employees stopped keeping their phones with themselves or switched them off, without realizing that they had to be available since some team members worked in shifts that spanned over the day. Employees had to remain active for longer hours to suit the timing of their team members or their juniors.

  • Apart from communication limitations, was there any other issue?

The senior management of Engro Fertilizers felt that their team members lost motivation and often expressed anxiety over the indefinite period of the lockdown. Initially, employees thought that the “work from home” model would last a few weeks but when it turned into months, they became uneasy and confused. Aside from the challenges of working from home, the psychological stresses of job insecurity and the inability to perform better made many employees slip into a temporary depression.

  • Were you subjected to salary cuts or reductions?

Engro Fertilizers did not lay off employees nor were there any salary cuts. However, contract employees and distributors who work as external resources suffered as their commissioned hours of work and their total payments were reduced.

  • Were deadlines for projects and targets met?

The deadlines were a problem for all employee levels. The senior managers said that they would wait for reports or project presentations for hours but due to one team member’s connectivity issues, the usual 10-minutes presentations would span over hours.

  • Did you feel that some employees had reduced output?

Engro Fertilizers is related to agriculture, therefore, the industry thrived, and this created opportunities for all senior, middle, and lower-tier employees to work to a maximum.

  • What do you think was the reason for reduced output by others?

The reasons for the limited output by individuals were the psychological stresses and ambiguity of the lockdown situation. The company ensured mental health for all workers as the human resource (HR) departments conducted productive meetings and helped individuals who were dealing with anxiety.

  • Did you feel psychologically strained?

Every person who answered the questions said “yes”. They shared various reasons such as work insecurity, the stress of getting ill, and the fear of death in isolation. These reasons kept many employees worried.

  • Did the work become easy or was it stressful during the lockdown?

Individuals adapted to the new model according to their own working style. The officials who liked going to the office and keeping their family life separate from work felt as if the new work model was unreasonable. On the contrary, female workers and junior officers felt that the new model gave them a chance to spend time with their families despite the workload.

  • If you have to continue, will you like working from home?

Only one female worker from the senior management said “yes” and the reason was that she is a single mother. However, every other employee from the company said that they would like to return to their offices as soon as possible.

Conclusively, when it comes to working from home, all of the employees faced similar challenges, despite the difference in the nature of businesses.

Findings and Analysis

This section of the study would briefly analyze a listed Pakistani company in the fertilizer sector to look at how different levels of workforce reacted to changes brought due to the pandemic. Thereafter, an overall analysis of various factors that played a role in organizational resilience would be discussed and the linkage with Engro Fertilizers would be made where applicable.

A Survey of a Pakistani Company

An informal survey was conducted with ten employees of a giant fertilizer company, “Engro Fertilizers Limited”. The reason for this survey was to analyze the ground realities of the different cadre of employees and analyze how their work structures were affected due to restrictions imposed and how higher-level management strived to keep the business afloat.

Informal discussions and interviews were conducted with two top management employees, two were middle management employees, and six employees from the Daharki plant, working at the intermediate level as supervisor, shift in-charge, and distributors. As lockdown restrictions and staff cuts imposed by the government during the pandemic, from time to time, were observed by Engro Fertilizers, all levels of employees, including those working from home, faced varying challenges.

The main challenge that was faced by middle management employees was that they had to struggle with the workers on the field as they did not have proper infrastructure for communication. Since the fertilizer industry caters to the agricultural sector, many dealers, transporters, agents, and farmers located in interior Sindh and Punjab had poor communication due to the lack of Internet coverage.

“The poor Internet connectivity was the only concern as far as smooth operations were concerned,” said employee A, who is in charge of collecting monthly sales data from the various distributors and the plant supervisors in Daharki.

Work patterns and senior management remained fairly smooth as they had the resources to cope with changing social and economic structures. Better mediums of communication, available with senior management, were used to the best of their potential in order to get work done. In fact, the senior management employees were able to overcome the challenges of working from home during the pandemic as they felt rather comfortable working remotely, with flexible timings.

The lower management staff were mostly unsettled, mainly because of the fear of the unknown. They were afraid about a general economic downturn and were mostly worried about remaining employed, as they feared layoffs due to the staff cuts imposed by the government.

These factors, among others, had to be tackled by senior management to ensure organizational resilience, due to which many steps were taken. In the ensuing sections of this study, general analysis factors that played a role in organizational resilience would be discussed.

Factors That Led to Organizational Resilience

The ways of doing business have not matured enough in Pakistan as they have in other developed countries. It can be safely said that Pakistan was not ready to go digital and amend its modi operandi by introducing measures like the “work from home” policy. However, companies that were surveyed showed that, although various industries were not ready for drastic changes in ways of doing business, they somehow managed to keep their business afloat even after introducing remote working. Factors that may have played a role in this unexpected change are discussed hereunder:

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1. Emotional and Psychological Support

Stress levels rose as the sudden change in the work environment and unpredictability about the future was increased. Stress was one of the main challenges faced by the overall workforce as they were working from home and could not deliver the targeted tasks due to infrastructural problems, such as power cuts and bad Internet services. However, companies provided emotional help through company doctors and regularly enforcing their commitment to employees.

The emotional help led to some release of anxiety and of course, employees had a feeling of self-worth as they were repeatedly reminded that their health was most important. The employees who were under the effect of COVID-19 were also supported through free medicines delivered to their homes and regular newsletters by the HR departments with prayers and good wishes from other employees.

Engro Fertilizers especially took the lead in reaching out to its employees and offering emotional help through its regular emails and grapevine newsletters to remind all employees that their contributions were valuable. Moreover, Engro Fertilizers Limited took part in small meetings to encourage informal communication so that the teams felt connected and supported.

2. Employee Care and Returned Dedication to Work

The support extended to employees and their families added to the productivity of teams as everyone felt special and important. Thus, we can say that the first step to organizational resilience was taking care of employees and their families so that their sense of belonging turned to dedication and company loyalty.

4. Flexibility in Working Hours and Deadlines

Many businesses could not overcome the challenges of working from home and suffered losses in the pandemic. These businesses include local bakeries, cinemas, travel agencies, tour guides, and restaurants, etc. This leads to another realization that the type of business and organizational resilience are also correlated. Accordingly, it was observed across various industries that the ones which adopted the change and introduced the policy of working from home during the pandemic were able to control the overall economics of their business.

However, businesses that did not respond to the changing requirements of the post-pandemic era suffered hugely. How business failed and survived can be further elaborated by analyzing the local retail sector of Karachi, Pakistan. Many retail businesses were widespread but did not offer online services.

For example, in Karachi, Imtiaz Superstore and Naheed Supermarket are well-known and have online services. These two businesses were able to withstand the crucial winds of pandemic restrictions on grocery shopping and market operations. However, another old business that did not survive the blow was Agha’s Supermarket.

It is important to mention that in 2020, Agha’s was burnt to the ground and this loss was hardly covered when the pandemic blow ensured a bigger loss that the company could not retain. Despite the fire incident, Agha’s might have survived if it had overhauled the website and offered online shopping to its customers who were regular buyers for generations. This shift from in-store shopping to online shopping was not as smooth for Agha’s as it was for Naheed’s and Imtiaz’s supermarkets.

Factors That Promoted Organizational Resilience on Individual Levels

Despite the size of the organization and motivation levels of employees, the psychological factors that led to organizational stability and resilience through the pandemic were positivity, business innovation, proactive thinking, and enterprising thought processes. Few aspects of these factors are discussed hereunder:

1. Employee Satisfaction

Organizations that maintained strong relationships with employees were the ones who thrived through the rough periods of the pandemic and are doing well up till now. We surveyed Engro Fertilizers in Pakistan but there are many other businesses that are run by owners and ensure good relations among employees. An employee of the mid-management level from Packages Limited was interviewed to assess the steps taken by the management of Packages Limited to ensure employee satisfaction.

The owner of the company ensured that despite facing the challenges brought by the pandemic, their employees felt relaxed and at ease while working from home. The human resource department was instructed to ensure that employees are doing well and were advised to carve out effective methods to take the shifts from office to home as conveniently as possible while remaining effective. However, due to various business constraints and challenges, Packages Limited did lay off some employees which resulted in the retained employees becoming more cautious of their performance and ensuring their full commitment to working from home.

It can be said easily that, although things must have been hard for the ones who lost their jobs, companies as a whole remained focused on the concern of the business for the greater good of the majority of employees. This factor was somewhat understood and accepted by both categories of employees, i.e. the ones who lost their jobs and the ones who were retained.

The reactions from the ones who lost jobs were not as severe as expected because the retirement benefits that were ensured in the pre-pandemic era were not curtailed and suitable disposable income was given to them to cope up with their lives. Guarantees of resuming working relationships with such employees were also used as a tool, to not only ensure that laid-off employees were of value but to enforce the value of Packaged Limited with its employees.

2. Economic Satisfaction

People who felt secure and did not worry about losing their job became relaxed but did not compromise on the quality of work because the fear of joblessness was nonetheless imminent. The employees who feared losing their jobs became desperate to perform better as well. In both the cases of absence of security, as well as increased security, the working temperament of employees improved as they wanted to improve their relationship with the employers and consolidate their position within.

These factors, along with various others, contributed positively to organizational resilience and helped overcome the challenges of working from home.

Factors That Hindered Organizational Resilience on Individual Levels

The businesses are run by individuals and the psychological characteristics of such individuals impact business performance directly. For example, if a head of a department is unable to handle stress and think proactively, his or her incompetence impacts the company’s performance directly.

A study published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) on the psychological factors that helped reduce the impact of the pandemic showed that proactive behavior, positivity, and entrepreneurial intention were of foremost importance in these times. Moreover, the study showed that in states where people felt more impacted by the pandemic, the level of satisfaction with life and positivity was lesser. In China, 58.3% of the population was unmotivated and unhappy with their lives (Hernández-Sánchez, Cardella, and Sánchez-García, 2020).

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The Perspective of Economically Literate Individuals

At the very least there are two most common theories one hears among various analysts during this pandemic. First being future basing and cautioning that the so far proven theory of rich becoming richer and poor, poorer, in the current economic structures, would strengthen and this pandemic will leave the poorer in further distress. The other, rather layman, theory which is being broadly promoted on various platforms tries to preach that this pandemic should be looked at as a call from mother nature for economic balance, fair distribution of wealth, and keeping human life most important.

Generally, individuals and organizations, who accumulated wealth and remained in power in this industrialized world, have been justifying their undervaluing labor capital by enforcing that in the current economic structure of the world, the reward is only related to financial risk. As the labor force does not bear such financial risk, it is being valued and rewarded at what it should be, as was the premise of industrialization.

Hearing these reasons and decoding such rationales, the minds of workmen as a whole went into a constant state of calm. They perceived that this is how the world works and the only way for them to succeed is to pile up enough financial capital and become a person who, in our current view, is an exploiter of labor capital.

When the pandemic hit the world, ideally, the individuals and organizations who have remained at the “reward” side of this economic equation should have been the ones to take the hit. However, when the time came to bear the “downside risk” of the long-going economic structure, the individuals and organizations with power decided to shift the downside risk to labor capital by enforcing wage cuts and layoffs, etc.

Dissecting this concept of the downside risk of economic structure, and how people in power are still able to exploit the already suppressed, played a pivotal role in the overall mistrust of workforce economic downturn of various companies.

Factors Demotivating Employees in Pakistan

The factors that demotivated employees in Pakistan are also discussed hereunder:

1. Hypothetical Overview and False Information

When people understood that COVID-19 can be fatal, their interaction with the world for business and personal reasons decreased. Individuals became scared and believed it was better to remain indoors than wear a mask, maintain social distance, and resume economical activities. Moreover, the false information and rumors led to the lower and middle classes being scared about the future of job opportunities, and their negativity reached a criminal threshold.

This thought process proved to be influencing the employees of businesses, who took to wrong deeds and malicious performance in order to secure their future. The employees thought process marred the performances of organizations and in turn, organizational resilience was reduced.

2. Ambiguity and Pandemic Perception

While some researchers and analysts expected people to adapt to the new normal quickly, some in-depth reports on the psychology of the lower and middle classes showed that the individuals were losing motivation and were becoming aloof due to the ambiguity of the pandemic. Many employees, who were facing several challenges while working from home, were concerned about the period for which they would remain indoors.

Other people related to trade were confused about the number of months that they would have to spend on limited resources. Similarly, all individuals who were related to a suffering industry were under the impression that maybe the pandemic will only last a few months. However, they got overwhelmed when the situation got worse due to the second and third waves that followed the initial blow. This perception and ambiguity led to depression, drastic measures, and even resulted in the folding of businesses that gave up sooner than they should have.

3. Depression, Anxiety, and Impatience

The lack of resources or insufficient capital value of businesses led to some psychological behavior that marked the downfall of small and medium enterprises in Pakistan and other countries. Individuals who believed that their resources were not enough to retain the business, got depressed and this further aggravated the deterioration of business performance. Depression, anxiety, and impatience of higher officials, owners, and executives caused the businesses to lose balance.

Results and Recommendations

Big companies that deal with exports and imports have found alternatives instead of dealing with a particular country. An example of this is the European textile industry that relied on China for most of its supply. Since the virus originated in China and the country was closed for business for several months, this year the European vendors decided to buy textile goods from other countries, including Pakistan.

Similarly, many Pakistani luxury brands’ stores like Next, Mango, and Accessorise could not offer anything new to their buyers, as the import of goods from Europe was closed down. This year, all these stores have decided to keep warehouses and promote overseas productions to make it possible for buyers to purchase clothes of the latest designs and trends. International luxury brands and designer labels have introduced lines, consisting of casual clothing, to cater to people working from home.

Human nature is flexible and it is possible to change the old ways to accommodate and accept circumstantial developments. Furthermore, serious long-term changes for overall human development are necessary for organizations to ensure economic growth.

Conclusion

Considering the period of recovery for the pandemic and the aftermath of strict lockdowns, many business owners have started thinking practically and are coming up with ways to combat the current situation. In 2020, many business owners in Pakistan believed that this “phase” will pass and everything will return to normal. However, one and a half years later, things are almost the same.

This realization has led many businesses to overhaul their models and caused them to come around to accepting that they will have to resume their business activities amidst the fear of the COVID-19. While maintaining social distancing and following standard operating procedures ( SOP), many businesses have started building up again.

References


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