Masterclass: Reimagining work in the post pandemic world

Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley draws on her research and ICICI Lombard’s Bhargav Dasgupta on his firm’s experiments. They discuss why leaders must prepare for hybrid workplaces

Founding Fuel

The pandemic and the resultant lockdown turned the world of work upside down. It forced both leaders and businesses to re-evaluate many age-old assumptions and practices related to productivity, on how teams collaborate and build organisational trust. Since then though, many firms have, willy-nilly, learnt to adapt to the new world of remote work or work-from-home (WFH).

A year later, there are a new set of dilemmas facing leaders. A sizeable majority of employees, who tasted remote work for the first time, say they have no intention of returning to the office. And an equally large percentage of employers would much rather have their employees come back to the office and the old ways of working. So, what gives? Will a new hybrid model be the panacea? As a leader, how do you enable the transition? What will set apart the workplaces that are best-in-breed from the also-rans?

To unpack how the workplace is evolving, we held a week-long learning programme in late April. Those who had registered

  • attended a Masterclass with HBS professor Tsedal Neeley and ICICI Lombard’s MD & CEO Bhargav Dasgupta;
  • engaged with the ICICI leadership team on Clubhouse to understand how they have planned the transition from a culture woven around close physical proximity at the workplace to a hybrid model;
  • had a chance to engage with the community on closed groups;
  • and received curated content, including summaries, comments, mini case studies and books that we shared.

(If you wish to receive an invitation to future Founding Fuel Masterclasses, subscribe to our newsletter.)

We are sharing here key takeaways from the main session, and also from the Clubhouse chat, Case Study on Reimagining Work: Lessons from an Early Mover, that preceded the Masterclass.

Six Takeaways from the Masterclass

Two stalwarts—Tsedal Neeley, a global thought leader, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, and Bhargav Dasgupta, MD & CEO of ICICI Lombard, India’s largest private general insurer—come together to discuss new concepts and next practices; global case studies and local insights; unanswered questions and dilemmas facing many Indian leaders, as they grapple with the new world of work.

They were in conversation with Indrajit Gupta, co-founder & director, and Kavi Arasu, Director-Learning & Change, at Founding Fuel.

1. The pandemic is a game changer: It dramatically increased the number of people working remotely and collaborating using technology. Even veteran remote workers suddenly saw their own routines change. 

  • New demands arose: 
    • How do we maintain enduring trust?
    • How do we ensure productivity stays the same despite not being able to see people?
    • Pressures from family
    • Space to work

2. Productivity has been a big question on people’s minds in the past year. And leaders began to resort to monitoring and surveillance.

  • But 30 years of data, going right into the pandemic period, shows that productivity typically increases with remote work. However, some might experience a fall in productivity, because
    • People need space to do work.
    • Noise, especially in inter-generational homes.
    • Poor leadership impacts productivity.
    • Absence of cohesion—out of sight; out of synch; out of sight; out of touch. 
  • In the absence of productivity people feel they are in crisis mode. Once they begin to see we can do it, they begin to think ‘how can we do this better?’

3. Trust is not just from leaders to others, but also about how the group gels together. And it’s crucial for remote work.

  • You have to think of trust differently in a remote environment—how will you build cohesion? 
    • Swift trust: Is my colleague dependable? And do have the competence and qualification to do the work? If yes, trust them 
    • Emotional trust: That others care about what we care about. That our difficulties are important to them. Leaders need to earn emotional trust. It requires frequent contact, sharing of yourself, and empathy. 
  • At ICICI Lombard what helped is an openness to experimentation. And that people are very adaptive. But some skillset and mindset issues remain, says Bhargav:
    • A trust-based culture is WIP: How do we change our leadership role from managers to coaches, and let people be. (Tsedal adds, it’s important to give people autonomy but coach them where they need guidance. When leaders don’t do what Bhargav described, people go into hyper-productivity mode. Which leads to burnout.)
  • Organizational trust is a proxy for
    • Leadership
    • Cohesion
    • Providing people what they need to work well autonomously
    • New processes, routines and skills (knowledge that we apply)

4. The culture of your organisation as you’ve known it, is gone! 

  • Companies like Microsoft and Google who are asking their teams to come back to office, are worried about losing control and culture. They believe that the interactions will work better if everyone is co-located. However, physical space itself has changed because of social distancing. You can longer bring everyone into a room; some of them will be dialling in.

5. Leadership mindset must start shifting

  • Now more people have access to you. Leaders need to think about how to facilitate connection between people. And ensure that people feel leaders are equitable and inclusive—especially in a hybrid environment.
  • They need to think of how to work effectively using digital tools, and how to balance asynchronous and synchronous work.  

6. Leaders need to reimagine what it means to be a leader in this digital world.

  • They need to be continuous learners. The pandemic has accelerated many organisations’ digital transformation, and in very short order, work is again going to be upended again because new technologies (AI/ML) will become ubiquitous. Leaders don’t need to be experts, but they do need to understand where data lives; systems architecture; how to appraise data, etc.
  • Leaders should take two big learnings from this pandemic: Resilience and empathy (put the employee at the centre when designing your organisation)

Case Study on Reimagining Work: Lessons from an Early Mover

In this Clubhouse discussion, which preceded the Masterclass, the ICICI Lombard leadership team shared how they have planned the transition from a culture woven around close physical proximity at the workplace to a hybrid model, where not more than half of the 10k+ employees would come to office at any point in time.

The speakers included

The session was facilitated by Indrajit Gupta, Co-founder, Founding Fuel, and Kavi Arasu, Director, Learning & Change, Founding Fuel

Session Notes

What they did and why

  • In March 2020, they were just beginning to grapple with the new challenges
  • Late May - early April: A period of reaction. More a crisis management approach
  • By April end began to ask, is this a longer-term phenomena? Perhaps this was a transformative opportunity.
  • In May analyst call, Bhargav Dasgupta committed they would have 50% WFH even after the pandemic.

How they went about it

  • In the initial period, too many video calls.
  • Decided to look at others who were already working remotely much before the pandemic—how do they do it?
  • Work can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous. 
  • One example of asynchronous—a note that others could read and comment on. Instead of discussing it in a physical meeting.
  • Decided that every meeting needs such a pre-read document. Sent at least 24 hours before the meeting. So people come prepared
  • In the past one year, asynchronous and pre-reads added to the organisations’ vocabulary.

Learning the new ways of working

  • Learn from non-insurance companies
  • Bhargav spoke with his niece in Austin to listen in to her experience with remote work.
  • Need to be flexible. If the world changes again, nothing stops us from changing back (though he doesn’t anticipate that happening!)

How did employees react—balancing tech, moving away from old habits, etc

  • People had an adaptable mindset, given the industry they work in
  • Initial reaction was, what’s available so I can get back on my feet quickly?
  • Next phase, where they decided to give employees choice of hybrid/WFH/Remote, that idea took some getting used to. 
  • Questions on how will we collaborate, new norms of engaging, what does working remotely really mean—these came up.
  • Did many focused group discussions internally. Aim to get as varied feedback as possible. 
  • New needs surfaced
    • Need to be “visible”. Affirmation of work done
    • Need for informal engagement--missing the chai ki tapri
    • Missing people
    • And the opportunities to learn from each other. Which happens intuitively in  physical proximity.
  • When Bhargav announced 50% WFH, it really struck home that this is here to stay.
  • Typically theirs is a high-touch business, based on one-on-one connect. How would that work now?
  • Many of the interventions came from the focused group discussions. And the buy-in came from that too.
  • All of this—internal feedback, brainstorming etc—happened after they announced it to the world that they’ll go 50% WFH. 

Synchronous - asynchronous work

  • It attempts to solve the problem while working remotely. But as a service organisation, the bonding, brainstorming, connections can’t be replicated remotely
  • Therefore, hybrid work. 
    • 50% WFH doesn’t mean 50% work in office and the rest work from home. 
    • Give people enough opportunity to come to office and meet
    • The mix of in-office work vs remote work needs to be worked out.

On organisational identity

Workplace is a significant way employees identify with the organisation. How does that change now?

  • ICICI Lombard is on an open-minded discovery journey. Don’t have all the answers worked out yet.
  • There are organisations that have made it work (even before the pandemic).
  • Perhaps there is a generational issue between Digital Natives and people like us--on adaptability to new ways of working.
  • In Bhargav’s first virtual townhall with new employees last July, all done digitally, there was mixed feedback 
    • Large number of people said it’s not a problem.
    • One set was OK with joining virtually and working remotely
    • But people have their unique needs, so will have to work out a more universal approach to this new way of working.

New infrastructure; skills, processes and tools; and mindsets  


  • Right upfront needed laptops for everyone to WFH. During lockdown, when laptops became scarce, they had 85% of the employees covered.
  • Asked employees their pain points at this stage.
    • Mobile internet bandwidth was the biggest pain point—- decided to reimburse for fixed line broadband.
    • Headsets because of long calls
    • Ergonomic chairs at home (most wouldn’t have these in a home setup)    

New skills, processes and tools

  • Real-time communication — problem-solving, ideation
  • How do we communicate? Written word (pre-read notes/written updates in asynchronous work mode) became more important than spoken word.
  • Engagement. Needed to build this capability in middle management as well (senior management was more adept at communicating and engaging with dispersed remote teams.) — Move to a trust-based relationship.
  • Designed new systems and processes as fresh issues came up. (Eg, be mindful of the time going into meetings/not call people on weekend etc)
  • Introduced a silent hour from 2-3 pm. To cut down on meeting overload. By and by it became a “lunch hour”. 
  • Women wanted to get away from home--too many home responsibilities (kids, elders etc) conflicting with work responsibilities. 
    • Decided to allow flexibility—no need for instant response to every email.
    • The organisation worked to take away any stigma about working from home. (That WFH is not “work”)
    • Released documents on online meeting etiquette.
    • Other interventions to relax people—celebrate—events moved online   

On managers’ expectation that people will work more from home, given the time saved on commuting — and the mental health implications of that

  • We are still working on this. The silent hour came from this need for a break.
  • Formal decision that no meetings after 7 pm. 
  • We’ve improved, but we can do more on this.
  • Might become easier once we move to hybrid.
  • Worked on giving employees channels to speak out and seek help. A helpline where they could seek advice and help. Some of these engagements continued for 2 months.

[Jane McConnell: Nokia, in the old days, was working remotely already. With hotdesks. Headquarter-centered organisations find it harder to shift to remote work, because they are so dependent on face-to-face engagements. Companies of the future will be more fluid.] 

The key challenge going forward

  • Dispersed teams working from different locations in the country. The new mindsets we’ll need to work well.
  • From in-office to WFH last year. These are two ends of the spectrum. Hybrid work is the way going forward. But it still needs to be figured out. 
    • How do you conduct hybrid meetings? How do you blend the teams in-office meeting on video with a team working remotely? .
  • In hybrid mode, the perception around people working from office and those working remotely
    • Fear of missing out on projects
    • Fear of missing out on new knowledge
    • Fear of being ignored/being invisible to line managers if working remotely
    • How will performance be assessed?
  • Need a mindset change in the new way of working—change management
    • Softer signals, e.g. body language, is missing.
    • Need smart dashboards  
  • Tacit learning and personal engagement to onboard people well
    • When a new recruit has a lot of engagement and handholding from the line manager, everything goes well
    • Will the glue loosen in a shift to hybrid?
    • Inclusivity (hybrid actually opens up opportunities for this.)

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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