The Lockdown and the pandemic have encouraged a new paradigm. So far, remote working and telecommuting was a concept seen mainly relevant for the more advanced countries in the West, where the concept of telecommuting and Work from Home started with the employee in mind. Work life balance and flexibility were primary considerations. However, the pandemic and the ensuing Lockdown has encouraged people in India to believe that this is a practice that is possible to implement here. The pandemic necessitated the introduction and innovation on the theme of work from home- WFH. This management practice has now evolved into a cost saving and productivity enhancement initiative.
Corporate India was thrown into the swimming pool without learning swimming the formal way and just learnt how to WFH in order to stay afloat. In fact, this term has added a new dimension to our rapidly developing lexicon of terms for 2020. In the context of the infection, we have Social /physical distancing, Lock Down, Shelter in place, mask, anti-bodies, PPE, Sanitizers, amongst others. Another set of terms in the context of Work from Home (WFH) are new work-related terms besides Lock Down fatigue, synchronous versus asynchronous learning, and those related to Zoom fatigue, MS Teams, Adobe Connect and other e-meeting/learning platforms. Now that fate has conspired to compel companies to shed organizational orthodoxies about WFH the debate is heating up. There have been diverse views expressed about the utility and effectiveness of WFH.
Business cases for many management practices are not supported by sufficient research. They are not always evidence based. They are argued on perception, intuition and are individual experience based. Evidence based management, written about and evangelised by Jeffery Pfeffer of Stanford University emphasises the importance of research, data and actual trials. In this context, to support the cause of WFH there is the study done by Nicholas Bloom the British behavioural scientist who teaches at Stanford University. The hypothesis that WFH is a useful management practice for raising productivity and profitability by reducing costs was tested by the famous Bloom’s experiment. The practices of WFH in the Western world, vary dramatically. For example, in the airline industry, American Airlines does not allow WFH. United Airlines has a mix of practices. The Jet Blue call centre employees are all on WFH. In India TCS has talked about 75% of its employees moving to a WFH pattern, and as an afterthought, revised the proposition.
There is a spectrum of opinions on WFH. In cities like Mumbai where long commutes swallow up precious time there is potential for WFH to address this issue. On the other hand, there are concerns about over work and burnout in the full WFH model. A concern raised by some managers is about employees shirking work without the direct oversight of supervisors.
Nicholas Bloom’s work was published in 2015 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, extolling the benefits of working from home. The primary objective of the exercise was to explore how to save real estate cost in a very expensive Shanghai. The research was based on a randomised control trial (RCT) involving 996 employees of CTrip, a Chinese travel company. The Company with a headcount of 16000 employees is a NASDAQ listed Chinese Travel Agency. The employees from the Airfare and Hotel Departments were asked whether they will be interested in WFH for 4 days a week with the fifth day in office. Of those asked, 503 said that they were interested in participating in the experiment. Of these, 503 employees, 249 qualified to take part in the experiment. The qualifiers were: six months service in the Company, access to Broad Band, and a private space delineated at Home to work. A lottery system was used and employees to identify the trial and experimental groups, where employees with even number Birthdays selected for WFH. Odd number Birthday employees, stayed in office, as the control group. Office and Home Workers used the same IT equipment, faced the same work order flow from a common server, carried out the same tasks and were compensated under the same pay system. The only difference was that they worked from different locations. The experiment revealed that working from home led to 13% increase in performance; almost an extra day of output per week and a 50% drop in employee quit rates. Workers attributed an increase in time worked to greater convenience of being at home. Attrition fell sharply amongst those who were on WFH. The experiment was so successful that C Trip rolled out WFH for the whole firm. The C- trip experiment explicitly provided for employees to make a choice in opting for the WFH pattern for 4 days a week and attending office every 5th day of the week. Choice was an important facet of the experiment. This element of personal choice offered for WFH assumes that adults will take responsibility for their choice and will not flip flop between WFH and WFO. In Bloom’s study, WFH was not a compulsion for all roles.
But this experiment was done before the recent pandemic. Today, Bloom is not gushing about the global rollout of WFH. The pandemic has forced parents with young children to become full time caregivers to their children, and school has entered home, along with the office. The assumption was that employees will find that private space even in small homes for a home office for WFH. We assume that distractions will be minimum. That no one will be allowed into the home office during the WFH. Many now claim that WFH is a productivity disaster. Working from bedrooms, shared common rooms, noise from partners, pets, family or room-mates can be distracting. Additionally, In-person collaboration is necessary for brainstorming, creativity and innovation. Lack of face of face time can lead to a slump in innovations.
There are several conundrums that need to be addressed while thinking about a WFH policy as a management practice.
- Organizational Culture. Trust is a basic precondition for WFH. Is the messaging consistent? For those who are opting for WFH the risk of not being included in the buzz of corporate life is a genuine concern. WFH is undesirable if it results in “out of sight and out of mind”. Employees who are ambitious and anxious about promotions, other forms of career advancements, should not get the impression that they are left out because of opting to WFH. However, Corporates will do well following the Russian proverb Trust but verify, which was used by President Ronald Reagan.
- Specific Roles. Specific roles for which WFH is conducive must be cherry picked. All roles cannot be converted into WFH. Even roles that are relatively solo in working style, that need a certain type of hard ware and software such as specialist design engineers who need work stations of a different type to support their work, will need to come to office.
- Confidentiality considerations. Some clients and customers from sectors of business, where it is important to protect the Intellectual Property, front-end engineering design (feed) have concerns about confidentiality. WFH in such cases may not be possible.
- Cyber security. This is of utmost importance and a slew of measures are required for ensuring that data is secure, and that external malware does not creep into the supporting servers.
- Cost saving. This is a tricky one. Unless one can find viable alternate uses for the real estate released this will remain as an opportunity cost. Realistic estimates of this part of the equation are difficult to estimate. The cost savings on electricity, water, facilities, food and beverage are easier to quantify, and can be factored into the computations.
- Psychological factors. People who WFH complain about the loss of social capital. The social osmosis that happens in a physical workplace is very important for many employees. There are several articles about employees feeling depressed and pining to get back to office. In fact, Bloom is thinking of evangelising Work from Office (WFO) instead of WFH.
- Privacy factors. The line between work and home becomes too fine and almost blends. This blur causes its own type of discomfort. During the lockdown employees have complained that they do not know when the day begins and when it ends. Also, there is no place to hide. Even taking leave becomes a challenge. Where do you go?
- Travel time: This is a big advantage especially in urban areas where affordable housing is restricted to far flung suburbs. The time saved in the commute to and from the office can be considerable. This is likely to of directly impact productivity if time saved on the commute is judiciously translated into time spent on outcomes for business
- Performance Appraisal. This can be tracked well provided it is more “outcome based”. Goal setting and KRAs may have to be more quantifiable and outcome based.
- Cyber monitoring. While time sheets and logs are important to maintain WFH discipline the WFH work ethic is important. Consideration for the time of a subordinate must be demonstrated by the manager concerned since WFH does not mean being available for 24 hrs in a day. Employees must also take responsibility of not misusing the trust reposed upon them. This needs workshops and structured training to indoctrinate them into a new work culture
- WFH protocol. While employees must know when they should log in and be respectful to others in time slots that have been accepted, domestic sounds of a pressure cooker whistle, a pet coming between the Camera and the employee are occasionally amusing and should not be interpreted as being disrespectful to a manager. Also, an informal dress code may have to be substituted by formal attire, if required for an occasion. Communication between individuals needs to be respectful. An aggressive manager dressing down a subordinate may cause embarrassment, since the family may overhear a high- pitched and offensive conversation and pick up undesirable cues.
- Gender diversity. Many women professionals in India leave organizations and sacrifice a career to raise a family. WFH may afford an opportunity to women professionals to save on commute time and balance the requirements of home while managing their careers. However, this goes with a rider. Women who WFH are often overworked because of coping with the requirements of running a home, raising a family and managing their career. The sociological situation in India skews the domestic work load responsibility on women, since men are reportedly too busy, and not accustomed to doing domestic chores. This phenomenon is not uncommon across the country.
- Talent acquisition and retention. Locational preference has often been a hinderance in India for talent to take up a responsibility especially if it involves migration across cities. Besides emotional reasons, duties of looking after aging parents, education continuity for children may come in the way of taking the plunge of moving between cities. Some employees leave a job to relocate at their place of preference. To an extent this solves the problem of job posting related relocation.
- WFH practicality for certain sectors, not others. WFH is obviously impractical for roles in projects, construction sites and manufacturing shop floor roles. This causes an additional problem since those in these businesses who are in office jobs who are placed on the WFH work pattern may be perceived as the privileged few who belong to a class that is privileged. Getting acceptance by transparently communicating that each job role has its own nuances is very important. On the other hand, in IT/ITES companies where there are people doing coding or writing algorithms, the case for WFH may be stronger.
- Small self-directed teams, adequate technology support and tight cyber security are pre-conditions for WFH. Some argue that WFH is a part of a package of new ways of working including leveraging gig and neo gig employment. There are arguments for and against WFH.
- ESG agenda. There are some external considerations too that may have great importance soon, in the choice to implement WFH. The Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) goals are becoming an important part of the strategic agenda of corporations. ESG has 5 key guiding principles. Environment includes bio diversity loss, greenhouse gas emission, climate change impact, resource depletion, chemical pollution and waste management. Initiatives to address these by companies will need to be baked into the business strategy with targets. The UN has issued a guidance note on ESG under the broad heading of the principles of responsible investment. The reduction of effluents caused by using vehicles by employees is likely to be reduced by telecommuting/WFH, which may count towards such agenda.
The needle is swinging between the “to do” or “not to do” at this moment. Time will tell where it settles.
(The views of the author are personal. The author acknowledges the contribution to this article by Professor Sujata Sriram, TISS for her personal views on the subject)
1. Is It Time to Let Employees Work from Anywhere?: HBR
2. What If Working From Home Goes on … Forever?: New York Times
3. What If Working From Home Could Be Different To How It’s Been Until Now?: Forbes
4. Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy: Matt Mullenweg
5. Working from home failure: NY Times
6. Home advantage - making the most of WFH: The Guardian