The C-19 juggernaut is rolling on relentlessly, mutating even more powerfully as vaccines work to build resistance to hamper and neutralize its course. Globally, countries are struggling to cope, by being forced into multiple lockdowns to protect their citizens, causing massive disruptions to work life as we know it – attending offices nestled in brick-and-mortar constructions became impossible. Yet, the rapidity with which the world responded – America saw work from home (WFH) employees growing from under 7% of its workforce to over 45% in mid-2020 – has been amazing. India’s IT industry in particular, and various state governments have also cited the value of WFH together with a permanent hybrid model where people would work partly from office and home (WFO&H) even after the end of the pandemic. Offering huge comparative advantage, both WFH and WFO&H drive inclusive growth, better participation from all parts of the country and enable greater number of women who would have flexibility to work from home.
Being at home working is not a new thing. Scientific inventions and books that revolutionized the world did not emerge from factories; it sprang from the home toils of great minds and geniuses. Fast forward to present times, digital technology empowered the transition to dynamic working, or staying connected and working on the move, multiplying benefits and growth. Employees appreciate its flexibility – a study found 88% Indian employees prefer work from home – and companies are able to observe rise in productivity. The acceptance of remote work by several companies globally is one of the blessings of an otherwise incredibly hard time. The model, adapted in stress and swiftness, has in fact worked out so well that, according to the finding of World Economic Forum, post-pandemic too employers are ready to give ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) options to at least 44% of employees.
‘Work from anywhere’ now applies across industries, from tech to banking, finance, and even industrial companies handling manufacturing or supply chain management. Corporations leading the change will be pioneers – they will be magnets for talent because remote work enables a company to attract the best minds, oriented to growth and trended towards the future of work.
Such dynamic working is the next logical step in a globalized world, its flexibility easing international collaborations and expanding global talent pools. The greatest benefit for the employee is the control it provides over time, a temporal flexibility arising out of the elimination of the daily stressful commute and rigid work hours in offices as compared to WFH / WFA-enabled flexible work timings based out of convenient residential or resort spaces located away from the din and clutter of urban sprawls. For women, WFA provides added fillip to managing their careers and home lives. For a company, remote working facilitates global hiring of talent without the need to open subsidiaries in different geographies. For managers, the new system necessitates behavioural changes. Subordinates may have to be measured not by the duration of hours worked, but by the quantum of work and quality of output. Also, with remote work people may be in different time zones and, therefore, a lot of work will have to be done asynchronously, on accessible platforms like Slack channels or shared Google docs. Remote work is also an equalizer, contoured not by our location but by internet quality. Most remarkably, work from anywhere has the power to reshape old understandings of work, employees and companies now connecting in meetings of the mind and fusions of creativity, rather than the previous approach of physical attendance, hierarchical communication and regimented hours spent within office buildings. Additionally, WFA is blurring the line between work and leisure by setting the trend captured by the portmanteau term ‘workation’, the novel concept of working vacation, combining clearly planned business with curated recreational activities.
The flip side of WFH or WFA is the unhealthy overlap of home and office or work and leisure, resulting in a lack of respite from work pressures and consequent negative impact on health and wellness. Possibly there are other potential drawbacks too. It highlights the plight of those who do not have much flexibility, including frontline professionals and many in manufacturing and service industries. It accentuates the double shift women face, managing both official and domestic responsibilities. Such drawbacks could entrench inequalities. Instances like promotion biases against remote work, can, perhaps, be successfully navigated by managers drawing from increasing awareness and sensitivity. Technology will aid this journey, with futuristic innovations like hologram glasses, adding data to all that one sees, enhancing one’s view of the world with digitally created content and thereby improving the quality of work. Even the loneliness associated with working remotely may be addressed by augmented reality, bringing people virtually together.
Till previously, there was, apart from the physical, an invisible distance for everyone between office and home which enabled most people to mentally offload work pressure en route. Such an option is unavailable now and, hence, life is transforming into an added rat race from one stress to another. What is probably required to tackle the challenge is to instill greater systematization and discipline infusing consistently high energy levels into one’s day-to-day routine. At a glance, WFH and WFA are seen to facilitate higher productivity, lower establishment costs, near elimination of daily commute, substantially reduced fuel consumption and resultant traffic / pollution levels. Overall, a healthier lifestyle and salutary effects on environment. In spite of all such positives, it is doubtful whether the new high in productivity is sustainable over the long run. After extended time at homes, the compelling urge is towards social mobility and togetherness instead of further prolonging an enforced squeeze from expansive gregariousness to constricted creatures milling around computer screens; the primitive man evolved from hunter gatherers living in caves, moving on to agricultural farms and thence to factories and offices. The pandemic appears to have reversed history by pushing humans back to caves, as peering into digital screens is akin to drudging inside virtual caverns.