Interview: ‘Remote Working Can Lead To Productivity Gains’

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Zubair Ahmed

By Aashiq Hussain Andrabi

SINCE its outbreak in January 2020, the COVID-19 has upended the global economy. The International Monetary Fund has reassessed the prospect for growth for 2020 and 2021, declaring that we have entered a recession – as bad as (or worse than) 2009. Amid the global shifting sands and slowing economic engine, many are wondering about the lockdown-hit Kashmir job market.

The potential effects on the job market are dire. As companies from a wide-range of industries experience a decline in hiring, people looking for jobs are coping with uncertainty, assessing options, and fine-tuning their career search strategies in the face of a tough job market.

To talk about the impact of challenging economic times on the job market, Zubair Ahmed joins Kashmir Observer for a discussion on how to advance in one’s career through various development strategies and dive a little deeper into job search strategies in the midst of COVID-19 uncertainty.

A senior professional with 17 odd years of diversified experience in the field of Marketing, Strategic Planning, Project management, School Operations, Administration, Human Resources and Quality Assurance, Zubair holds Member Connect Certification from Netscape, New York.

In India he has spent most of his career years with “The Indian Express group and Network 18” which are among the biggest Brands of the country.

Now in United Arab Emirates, he heads the operations of Goldline Group of Companies. He is currently leading the Education Division of the group solely. And is also a Consultant for Health & Safety, Child protection and Safeguarding

Under his leadership, Dubai’s Springdales School was repeatedly judged ‘Outstanding’ on Health & Safety, Child protection and Safeguarding by KHDA (Ministry of education- UAE) which is considered the highest laurel in UAE for Schools.

Born in Srinagar, Zubair completed his early education from Islamia Hanfia, Islamabad, got his BA (Literature) from KU before perusing his dream of management studies (MBA) outside Kashmir.

“Learning the hard way was the only way as the strife-torn years that shredded normal life as it was the peak of the turmoil and nothing was in order in Kashmir,” Zubair shared his growing up experience with Kashmir Observer. “This also gave a realization that education is the only means to counter ignorance and exploitation.”

His close association with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in various capacities has helped him to contribute to the School Operation Models both in India and in UAE.

Been among the first voices for Kashmiri Language to be introduced at the primary level in Kashmir, Zubair believes everything is important about Kashmir but for Kashmir, the voice possibly got silent with time and the circumstance.

“Formal education is incomplete if we do not integrate the (local) social and cultural values, history and legacy, language – mother tongue into curriculum,” he said. “Also, it’s one of the main reasons why and how a society is exploited and oppressed easily as ours.”

In a free-wheeling chat, Zubair talks about the impact of COVID on job market and how planning and strategy can help students to rise above the impediments in post-pandemic world.

From your understanding what are the short-term and long-term implications of the COVID-19 virus on the job market, both locally in Kashmir and internationally? And how is it impacting job securities?

Amid the COVID-19 crisis and the looming economic recession, we are already seeing job losses, lower incomes, and increased poverty. Both locally and globally, unskilled and semi-skilled labour has already been hit hard through mandatory furloughs, salary cuts and redundancies.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) considers the pandemic to be the ‘worst global crisis since the 2nd World War’. The impact on unskilled labour is likely to be sustained even post COVID.

Where there has been government protection of jobs and salaries through borrowing at historically low interest rates, the worst impact of the global recession has yet to be felt even as conditions are ripe for recovery.

Supply chains are being reconnected but investment may remain sluggish, in spite of historically low cost of borrowing, due to uncertainty.

In the longer term, and bearing in mind the severity of the economic crash, we are likely to see severe job losses due to a contraction in global GDP of 2.5% – 9%, which is reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Those who do retain their jobs are likely to face salary cuts of anything from 15% – 25% depending on the industry and how far employers value their human resources.

Older workers and those less open to changing work practices and the use of technology are likely to be at greater risk as medical insurance premiums are likely to be loaded against them, at least until a vaccine is available.

Middle management employees may be rather more vulnerable in the next phase than low level workers who can be replaced and there will be a rush to ensure they acquire skills that fit whatever profile is on offer. Senior executives will try to insulate themselves by taking more decisions at middle level.

Jobs in the ‘informal’, zero-contract sector including unskilled migrant workers may find scarce, but those who are ready to offer their skills freelance to complete short-term tasks, the so-called ‘gig’ economy and/or are willing to work in a range of part-time jobs by exploiting employer’s needs to cut overheads may start to thrive.

The coronavirus lockdown has brought with it an array of side-effects – and some of them are surprisingly positive, what are some good things you’re seeing in the job market during this pandemic?

You are right. There is no doubt that COVID-19 is having devastating consequences for economies around the world. However, some positives are also coming out of the current situation.

When it comes to the job market, there are a few positive trends that are blooming or have already surfaced and going to stick even when all this is done. There is a developing responsiveness of both employers and job seekers to new concepts of working and recognition that upskilling, innovative thinking ‘outside the box’, effective communications and adaptability are essential but also achievable qualities.

What are few things candidates / job seekers should be cautious of or concerned about?

This is an important question. There are few things that the job seekers should be cautious of when looking at a job. Generally speaking, job seekers must always be concerned about their self-worth and pre-conceptions about their position in the job market as seekers of job offers, rather than providers of skill, commitment, and loyalty.

Besides they should be cautious of the consultancies that promise the world for a premium fee and deliver nothing of substance, and promises of employment by those who offer contracts that are based on flat-rate commissions, rather than a revenue share, i.e. the risk-reward trade-off is unevenly shared and unscrupulous recruitment.

Post pandemic, what jobs and which skills will be higher in demand?

Working remotely, the digital economy and virtual offices are inevitably going to feature more in everyone’s life. Opportunities that require a blended approach to working, i.e. flexibility in working from home and in the traditional workplace will be in demand.

Those skills and functions that can be automated and/or accommodated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) will continue to erode clerical and semi-skilled occupations, but this should not be over-stated. There is recognition that workers in health-care and education with the requisite skills, training and soft skills of empathy and resilience would be higher in demand.

There will be new opportunities in data literacy, analytics and building and promoting software to support remote working. This will also apply to AI, machine learning, block chain and cyber-security.

Those with highly-developed Emotional Intelligence for deployment in customer care, logistics, tracking, counselling, are likely to be in demand, at least until AI develops beyond being a simple and irritating FAQs robot.

‘At home’ services will be popular at the outset for more than just catering, but will include hairdressing, beauty, maintenance and repairs.

How can job seekers address their skill gaps to meet the realities and requirements of a post-COVID-19 job market?

One benefit of the lockdown has been providing time and opportunity to reflect on one’s own personal and professional development. The excuse, ‘if only I had the time…’ rings a little hollow. The first task is to identify what the skills gaps are. And how to use time as a resource. This is not as easy as it sounds, because it requires a critical understanding of which skills will be in demand in a post-COVID, or ‘second-wave’ environment, rather than those deficits you are already aware of in your profile. Both employers and job seekers need to become more adept at ‘skills mapping’.

Developing a skills map may include:

Identifying hard and soft skills needs and how to address them through self-study

Critically assessing and prioritizing key skills, e.g. using Zoom and MS Teams for presentations as well as for a face-to-face oral communications tool; re-designing your CV to ensure that your new skills profile is more prominent than your career history

Optimizing personal and professional development timeline so that the focus on upskilling is focused more on breadth than depth

Re-assessing any KPIs one may have and re-design them using benchmarking and SMART targets to evaluate personal and professional growth.

Developing an awareness using time and time zones more effectively, i.e. thinking less about ‘9-5’ working hours and more about when you can make most effective use of time throughout a 24 hour period. This is already common practice with online streaming and global trading.

What strategies should the job seekers employ to find and successfully acquire emerging job opportunities remotely?

As a job seeker one should stay abreast of the shifting environment and develop timely strategies for navigating during the uncertainty, as well as prepare for a post-crisis job market which may include:

Clarifying both hard as well as soft skills that can be offered to employers

Matching skills and core competencies to fields and industries less impacted by COVID-19

Developing a personal brand and translating it to an online profile and application materials

Conducting informational interviews to increase knowledge and expand professional networks

Investigating contract positions, remote work and other flexible working arrangements

Acquiring technical and soft skills through tools like LinkedIn Learning

Registering with online recruitment agencies

Ensuring that the CV is fit for purpose for the kinds of openings posted rather than being generic.

Creation of virtual organizations and remote work practices has grown manifold during this pandemic. What is the scale with which work is being detached from traditional fixed places of work and what are its consequences for effort, well-being and work-life balance?

The growth of virtual environments for study, work and leisure has been growing steadily and now exponentially and entrepreneurs working in cyber space will be more aware of scale than any researcher. One example is how Distance Learning in Schools has led to an increase in providers offering freebie support during the height of the lockdown emergency in April. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ – the suspension of international aviation has led to astute event organizers not cancelling conferences, exhibitions and job fairs online, where they have been able to reach a far wider audience.

The future implications are huge:

Wellbeing policy will extend to the remote working as well as the traditional work place.

Remote working can lead to productivity gains. The degree of transition to remote (home-based) working will be less determined by lockdown than to develop and extend the remote working experiment, which will also significantly reduce overhead costs for rented office space.

MS Teams and Zoom can increase engagement in meetings and control time wasting.

Large conferences, exhibitions and fairs have been required to go digital – and they reach a wider audience at lower cost and with environmental savings as a consequence.

AI and automation will put de-skilled jobs at risk. It will be important to diversify and upskill to avoid displacement. That said, AI is still very limited in its scope in terms of dealing with complex problems where human contact remains critical to consumer confidence. 

What is the future of remote work?

It is a mistake to either understate or overstate its importance. Blending home-based and office-based working will become increasingly embedded, but this will not apply to manufacturing, leisure services and transport.

Blended learning in education is likely to become an embedded feature of post COVID education. No school on bad weather days will become a memory. For the more able and diligent students, distance-learning has liberated them from the constraints of teacher-led classroom learning.

Online communications between home and school may challenge the traditional parent-teacher conference. People enjoy real rather than online interaction and so being able to ‘go to work’ to make face-to-face contact in real-space is unlikely to be displaced entirely.

In response to today’s rapidly changing job market due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how can job seekers stay focused and energized? 

Staying motivated and keeping momentum up during a job search can be challenging particularly during this hard time. With so many aspects beyond individual control, for the present job seekers must focus on maintaining a positive mindset and on what can be controlled.

They must ensure that they give time to themselves and focus on activities that provide a good balance between physical wellbeing, recreation and work-related activities, including job-seeking.

Importantly during this time of desperation, one should never limit his/her strategy to only sending out as many resumes as possible but must take a few minutes out of the day to focus on networking.

We should never overlook the power of networking and use social media tools to build our online brand, increase our visibility, support our credentials and network more effectively.

What is your advice for job hunters during this period? 

My advice to the job hunters would be:

Take time to know yourself and question your preconceptions about career pathways, the job market, the workplace, employment terms and conditions and strategies to safeguard your long-term financial security.

Register your CV and profile online with a range of established recruiters and be discriminating about what you pay for when approached by those promise everything but deliver little. 

Develop digital proficiency, on-line team-working and both oral and written communication so that you are adaptable to blended working. 

Take advantage of the growth in online training to upskill existing strengths and build new ones. Skills need to be re-focused and refined so that they are more transferable and able to take advantage of new opportunities. 

Be conservative about your expectations as the economies navigate through a recession that is likely to be deeper and longer than anticipated.

Learn the lessons of experience and adjust your mind-set to be resilient, innovative, adaptable and critically aware of your self-worth and value.

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