2020 will be remembered many reasons: the pandemic, below-zero oil prices, a US election that didn’t seem to end and record unemployment and economic distress. Amongst all these, the one thing that potentially has the room for debate in the years to come is the shift to virtual working environments.
The Beginning: The push to work from home wasn’t a decision taken to improve lifestyles or increase work life balance. Employers wanted business to continue as the coronavirus spread and it became very clear that governments across the world were going to lock down economies sooner rather than later. Making sure that where possible businesses could continue to operate outside a physical environment became an imperative so organisations put their planning engines to work to figure out how they could sustain weeks if not months of their workforces working from home.
The initial reactions from employees were extremely positive. Some of it driven by relief that they don’t need to put themselves in harm’s way as they commuted to office and worked in cramped quarters with co-workers at a time when testing levels were very low. In other cases, employees spoke about how this new method of working from home allowed them to weed out travel time and use that to hit the gym, play with kids or just read a book, luxuries that they hadn’t been able to afford in the past.
As time went on, a debate emerged, which is intensifying as we speak on whether this is the future and if so, more importantly will it work.
The CFOs’ gambit: Stressed balanced sheets are the perfect time for the CFO to take centre-stage. As revenues collapsed across the world, the need to shore up the balance sheet became important. Many organisations announced that working from home is the future and large portions of their workforce will continue to work from home (or a place of their choosing), in the years to come. This was quickly followed by organisations rationalizing their office spaces, giving up leases for capacity they had used earlier. The Indian office real-estate market shrank by 36 percent in the first half of 2020, inventory overhang is high and thus far the torch bearer of asset light workplace models a.k.a co-working spaces have had the bottom fall out. Whether we agree or not, the facts are out there, organisations are using Covid-19 and its associated work from home models to completely relook at how much office space is required and what is the bare minimum they can get by with.
The two sides of the debate: Very early in the pandemic, we had two distinguished leaders of India Inc. come out on differing sides of the debate. On one hand, the CEO of TCS envisaged a world where more than three-fourths of TCS employees wouldn’t need to come into a TCS premises by 2025. On the other hand the CEO of Infosys spoke passionately of the fact that Infoscions are right now leveraging the social capital they have built over years and will need to return to face-to-face interactions sooner rather than later. Similarly, while Facebooks announced that work from anywhere is here to stay, early pioneer IBM reduced the flexibility to employees to work from home after years of study indicated that it had a material impact on collaboration and creativity. There is an emerging body of evidence that is proving that jobs that need collaboration, brainstorming, collective problem solving or creativity are struggling in an environment that is virtual. Most of the bulge bracket banks took a brave decision to get their traders and salesforce back in office while allowing their support staff to work from home signalling that productivity of key teams was decreasing in this remote environment. Sure there are jobs that don’t require any of those things and they can and probably should be moved to 100 percent remote working but the strategic advantage of organisations are built on jobs that require their people to come together to solve difficult problems through iterations, out-of-the-box thinking and those will struggle in an environment which doesn’t foster interpersonal relationship building.
All too often I think we forget that we are deeply flawed and irrational human beings, we need context, comfort and relationship to get the best out of us, all of which will be up for compromise in a truly decentralized work environment. As organisations look at a larger population working from home, it becomes important to understand which ones can be moved to a virtual environment because they are siloed, process jobs vs. which are at the core of innovation and customer service which require humans to act and behave as humans.
The sheen is fading: The earlier euphoria about work from home is quickly being replaced by feelings of getting burnt out, lack of segregation between work and personal space, and being available 24X7. The same organisations that are looking at expanding WFH to make it a permanent feature are also worried about productivity and looking at ways to monitor employee productivity. Most people I have spoken to feel a lot more jaded, overworked and stressed in this environment than when they were working from office. There is an increasing sense of isolation, an increasing sense that there are too many meetings which otherwise a quick water cooler conversation would have handled and an increasing sense of despair going through the workplace. Client organisations I talk to have seen an increase in the number of employees seeking out mental counselling. We also forget we are not a developed economy; space is a premium at our homes. Culturally our homes aren’t built to provide the distance we need to be productive. Most of us in the cities lack the infrastructure to take care of our kids as we work. Unfortunately, the decisions to expand working from home are being driven by people/countries that do not resonate with our reality and that will cause turmoil for employees going forward. Women in India more so are facing the brunt as on top of their day job they are also expected to drive the household, manage help, and provide childcare because they are at home. People forget that they are working as well.
Lastly, this debate of whether working from home will expand is a trivial argument at best. 95 percent of India has gone back to work. They do not have either the luxury or the ability to work from home. Think of when you called your maids and cooks back. Chances are that was right after local government said you could. In reality this is an argument that concerns the very top echelon of India’s society, but having said that, if we were to expand the ability of this workforce to work from home for prolonged durations of time, both organisations and employees will end up paying a tremendous price, something I don’t think either is ready to do.
By: ANIRBAN GUPTA
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