Rewinding three years back, a time when companies grappled with the lack of contingency plans for an unfolding global crisis: Covid-19. CEOs, leadership teams, and HR heads united to navigate the challenge, prioritising the creation of safe and healthy work environments. While Work From Home (WFH) was not novel to many organisations, it emerged as the safest option to protect employees from virus exposure (focusing primarily on the Service Industry, excluding factories and agriculture). Even technology companies, previously resistant to the idea, recognised that servicing clients hinged on ensuring employee well-being. Some boldly declared a paradigm shift, pledging a permanent departure from traditional office spaces.
As the Covid-19 pandemic subsided (and even during certain phases), a significant portion of the global workforce embraced remote work from various locations - different cities, countries, and even their hometowns. This transformative shift redefined the conventional notion of "how work is normally done." Employees discovered advantages such as increased quality time with family, enhanced flexibility for personal life, reduced commuting in congested cities, and the ability to address work across different time zones. However, it also brought about challenges such as blurred boundaries between work and personal life, the constant presence of work at home leading to never-ending tasks, and difficulties for families with children as remote work coincided with children being at home throughout the day.
In the past two years, the topic of "Back to Office" has dominated discussions, with many companies considering a complete return to pre-Covid working norms, bidding farewell to the flexibility embraced over the last three years. Several leaders have expressed concerns about diminished collaboration, reduced innovation in remote work, the belief that relationships can only be built in close proximity, and the potential limitations for early-career professionals in remote settings.
While these arguments hold some validity, the Covid-19 pandemic offered an opportunity for the world to explore new ways of working. Instead of strategically embracing and structuring these approaches while maintaining a focus on employee wellness, there appears to be a sudden shift towards a hunger for productivity, requiring every employee to be physically present in the office.
Why a full return may not be viable
Strained infrastructure in Tier 1 cities: India's Tier 1 cities, with a population exceeding 120 million, face significant challenges in infrastructure support. Overcrowded buildings, congested roads, and inadequate living spaces are unable to accommodate such large numbers. The sluggish progress of metro construction in cities like Bengaluru has further disrupted normal life and added to the existing chaos.
Impact on quality of life: Employees who have returned to Tier 1 cities post-Covid are facing considerable hardships. Increased commute times due to traffic congestion, reduced time spent with families, soaring rents and cost of living, and skyrocketing airfares make it even more difficult for individuals to travel back to their hometowns periodically, leading to a diminished quality of life.
Leading companies have gone with their own research and done what seems right for them. Many have embraced the Hybrid framework (2-3 days from office /2-3 days from home) - including the likes of Microsoft, Salesforce, Hubspot, Unilever, etc. These are firms where ‘flexibility’ is still a very important aspect of the employer's value proposition. Hybrid has seemed to be the best work-around for most organisations and a win-win for the organisation and the employee.
Key considerations for organisations in flux
Employees go through different career and life stages: Some employees live far away from their workplace (even if in the same city), some employees are taking care of ageing parents, some are new parents themselves, etc. Force-fitting the corporate world to live in one particular way may not be the best idea.
With a complete back-to-Office strategy, there is immense pressure on infrastructure and facilities: Some ‘roles’ simply need not come to office at all, and can operate fully remotely. Many organisations have already done such a role-classification analysis
Innovation should first be put to use for figuring out better methods of collaboration: Companies like Zuhlke, Gitlab etc. have always chosen to operate fully remote. They have their own ‘ways of working’. Some easy suggestions can be a regular cadence of in-person monthly or quarterly meetings for brainstorming, strategising or simply having fun.
Developing mature points of views on topics like moonlighting: After all - it’s the work and output which matters; despite the fact that the person is able to do two separate jobs equally well. The principles of performance management still apply (as do those of confidentiality etc when we encourage such aspects) and each company can derive their own guidelines around it.
Companies which have gone remote have been able to capitalise on tapping talent from across the country/across the world given time zone compatibilities. This has opened out a whole new realm of possibilities; possibly the country will no longer need the ‘struggler single child who had to make his way to a city like Mumbai for more opportunities’.
In an unfair world, our thought should be to ensure as much fairness as possible: Operating completely online had brought everyone to a level-playing field. A simple example: introverted employees may have found their voices by raising their hands in any collaboration software too, rather than in a physical meeting room where many times they didn’t get a chance to speak. They also get their own quieter place to work, rather than in open office physical environments encouraged in many organisations.
The potential of what lies ahead
Building consistency in the approach and knowing your organisation culture and values well is important. In a recent McKinsey podcast with Nicholas Bloom, Economics Professor at Stanford, the talk is on how to be organised in the Hybrid approach. The research says that it benefits to have same days where all employees work from home and same days when they all come to office. This maintains consistency and ensures higher collaboration and productivity
Large-scale thinking, which will of course take more time. Organisations need to come together and collaborate with the Government of India with the aim of building more and better cities and better infrastructure, simply to enhance the quality of life. This can then also ensure a hub and spoke model for larger companies established primarily in metros, where smaller cities can perhaps have their presence as well
Finally a much more progressive thinking in terms of people and culture. Ages back, we had Theory X and Y proposed by McGregor - one which was based on negative assumptions on the worker and the other which assumed that employees are intrinsically motivated. How about we now look at Theory Alpha and Beta: Alpha says - ‘The physical workplace is the prime factor around which work revolves - all collaboration, innovation, experimentation and engagement is built through this workplace’. The Beta may be worded as ‘The employee is intrinsically motivated; the work output is not a factor of where the employee works from (physical office or elsewhere), rather how the employee aligns with different methods of co-working with colleagues at their organisation in order to achieve the best output’. Which one would your organisation go for?
Organisations hence have a lot more thinking to do in terms of ‘back-to-office’ strategies and perhaps need to go back to their basics, their foundations, and their values to plan the way ahead for a progressive future.