Working from home: Is the shift permanent?

COVID-19 is shifting working patterns as companies are forced to embrace remote working. Could this be the start of a new way of working?

Was it the only Quick Fix Solution?

Working from home (WFH) was seen as a cop-out method by employers or at best something workers took once or twice a week to beat the traffic. Yet, when social distancing is mandated by a raging pandemic, it is the only option left to keep companies afloat. The world has to adapt to a pandemic. It makes abundant sense to have contingency plans in place that take into consideration unforeseen circumstances. However, there are views that transcend the present circumstances, which advocate a de-novo look at how we work to make the work experience more enjoyable and eco-friendly. Clear skies, improving air quality, flowing jam-free traffic are all being credited to the WFH phenomenon.

How working from home helps everyone?

WFH is a good option in times of a pandemic, but the argument holds up even when public health isn’t at risk. It allows for a better work-life balance, reduces commute time, and is better for the environment. Many firms during this pandemic, like Apple, Microsoft and Google, are following the social distancing rule and allowing WFH.

On the flip side, managers worry about remote employees working less or not giving their best to work. There is also the concern that employees lose out on collaboration and brainstorming when not co-located. 

 The reason MNCs have been able to quickly shift to WFH is that this possibility has always been part of their planning and work culture, which is tested and changed on a yearly basis. After the current experience of WFH, many people are starting to realise that a lot of their work can be done from home, causing both managers and employees to wonder if working out of an office is even necessary. 

WFH has opened yet another can of worms with corporations questioning the need for workers at all.  Kai-Fu Lee, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) investor and Google’s erstwhile top executive in China, opines that AI developments will be more disruptive to people than other recent technological developments. Yet in some cases, automation may be the solution. For instance, Toyota is working on autonomous driving technology, yet not replacing the need for a driver altogether, at least for the time being. 

A cost-effective option

The most popular research done on WFH has been by a set of Stanford University researchers, Nicholas Bloom and his colleagues, on a company in China. The two-year study showed that there was no difference in productivity among the WFH group and regular office goers. It was also found that people found it easier to concentrate at home. Additionally, employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the WFHs, and they took shorter breaks, fewer sick days, and less time off. The company also saved nearly $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the office space needed. 

The study also found that in 2012-13, managers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany were allowed to WFH for nearly half the amount of time, showing that this is now a mainstream practice. The same trend has been seen in about  10 to 20 percent companies in developing countries.

Environmentally, WFH has some definite benefits. The U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2017 saw that the country used 391.40 million gallons of gasoline on a daily basis. Employees working remotely reduced gasoline consumption, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As per the Environmental Protection Agency, “In 2017, direct greenhouse gas emissions from homes and businesses accounted for 11.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Total residential and commercial greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 have increased by 3.4% since 1990.”

Lacking the Social Touch

Naturally, WFH would be harder to implement in the service sector and the unorganised sector (which is the biggest in India). A member of the Institute of Human Development recently stated that the current coronavirus scare would further affect consumption, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors, and the services sector.

As social beings, humans working without any interaction would feel cut off. It could also make them prone to taking on more work than is needed, as employers sometimes use the WFH option as a bargaining chip to get people to do more in exchange for the comfort of working from home. Women are also more likely to be affected by WFH possibilities as they still have the added responsibility of taking care of the home when it comes to the situation in India. On the plus side, those with children would get more time to spend with them while they WFH.

Assessment 

  • WFH is definitely a concept that is here to stay. India companies should cash on the trend and come up with contingency plans that first, prepare them to face unforeseen circumstances, and second, have a way of moderating and ensuring that work gets done in a better and more congenial work environment with happier employees and rising profits.  Managers could also introduce team meetings once in a while so that the WFH employees can connect with in-office employees. 

  • The kind of work that this applies to should also be considered - if it is a job that is mostly independent of others’ input – the transition to WFH is easier and more likely to result in increased productivity. 

  • WFH needs world-class infrastructure- high-speed, dependable broadband, and uninterrupted power supply,  sadly lacking in India. Workers living in hi-rise apartments are seeing a drastic slowdown in net speeds as everyone logs in simultaneously; for work or for pleasure.  While large housing colonies have back- up supplies, the same is not true for smaller towns and suburbs. Therefore, before a total WFH work environment is visualised, the matching infrastructure has to be created.

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