The pandemic marked a seismic shift in working practices for most, with the home and the office becoming one for the first time. Pushing millions to work from home, it accelerated a workplace experiment that had struggled to gain traction.
Now, well into the pandemic, the limitations and the benefits of remote work are clearer. For some, it made possible the choice of greater flexibility and control; for others, it made things worse, stalling education and job prospects and exacerbating anxieties emanating from financial insecurity.
Overall though, working from home seems to have found favour among urban Indians, with more than 50 percent urban Indian worker saying they loved working from home, 34 percent willing to take a salary cut for it and 83 percent wanting to continue working from home for at least two days once restrictions are lifted.
And even though 32 percent Indians earned less money during the pandemic, nearly 89 percent, driven largely by young Indians in the 18-34 age group, say they are confident that they have the necessary skills to thrive in the post-COVID world.
In that sense, the pandemic seems to have broken through cultural and technological barriers that hindered remote work in the past. This begs the question: Now that the vaccines are awaiting approval, can WFH persist in India, and if yes to what extent?
Worldwide, experts say the adoption of remote work is likely to see an upswing post-pandemic. This is especially true for developed economies where experts foresee nearly 25-30% of the workforce working from home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021. Currently, only a small share of the workforce in advanced economies—typically between 5 and 7 percent—regularly works from home.
In emerging economies like India, where employment is skewed towards occupations that require physical and manual labour in sectors like agriculture, retail and manufacturing, and where internet connectivity is still an issue, remote work may not be feasible everywhere, but experts foresee five percent of the workforce being able to work remotely between three and five days a week without affecting productivity.
The potential for remote work will likely vary across geographies, occupations and activities. It is also more likely to be concentrated among highly skilled and educated workers, young people employed in contractual jobs or those who are a part of India’s growing ‘gig workforce’. In fact, Gen-z and millennials are likely to be the drivers of our culture’s dramatic shift to working from anywhere.
To be sure, the desire amongst this demographic to work from anywhere existed from before the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by job portal Shine.com in June last year nearly 60 percent of millennials wanted more ‘flexible working options’ instead of working from the office all the time.
Quarantines, lockdowns, and self-imposed isolation just acted as catalysts for many young Indians to consider adopting remote work/flexible work as a choice, with nearly 76% of 25 to 34-year-olds in India (75% globally) now looking to set up a second income stream, and 56% of Indians aged 18 to 44 considering starting a business in the next six-months. The acceleration of the trend can also be gauged from the steady rise in demand for contract work and assignment based hiring, and the fact that India is now the second largest freelance market in the world.
With companies also viewing flexible working hours more favourably, and government easing compliance burdens for certain industries in a bid to create a friendlier ‘work-from-anywhere’ regime, hybrid models of remote work may therefore likely persist post-pandemic. This would mean that working in the office and working from home may no longer be binary choices, and where things allow, some companies could provide employees the opportunity to do both.
The Hidden Opportunity
A friendlier work-from-anywhere regime will also translate to a larger percentage of the urban population working from home than from before the pre-pandemic days – a development that could have a profound impact on migration patterns, urban economies, transportation, and consumer spending.
In that sense, this unprecedented situation also hides in it an opportunity for policymakers to re-think India’s model of urbanization (focusing it instead on decentralized urban growth); reimagine more efficient ways of fighting climate change, and improve workforce diversity in a transformational way.
Doing this will surely require many shifts – involving enhanced investment in digital infrastructure, more cooperation between industry and government, and undertaking structural transformation of our cities, commercial real estate and retail services. 2021 may just be the right year to make them happen.
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