Shocking. Regressive. Sure to backfire. These were some popular reactions to the developments at Yahoo! and HP headquarters – when both companies had asked their employees to report to physical office locations and discontinue working from their homes.
Under the new strategy, both companies want all hands on board and believe that tuning everyone to understand and work in the new culture will necessitate being in office. Given that these companies have been known for employee-friendly practices, this comes as a big hit to workers. The question though to ask is that is this back-to-office an exception or a trend in the making?
The answer lies in two parts. First, every organization has a different way of reacting to situations. Yahoo! and HP chose this atypical approach to cope with challenging times in their industry. That doesn’t imply that this is the right or the only way to react. It’s an experiment and only time will tell whether it works.
Second, you have to be flexible in your approach to flexi-working. In most organizations, there are jobs that require constant engagement with teams; that are best and more quickly done as collaborative projects; and then there are functions where this isn’t necessary. It’s the latter that are amenable to flexibility. But even in the latter, at times flexibility may not work. In the case of Yahoo!, for instance, the company has fallen way behind its competitors over the years and innovation is a dire need of the hour. The company’s CEO, Marissa Mayer believes, “People are more innovative when they’re together and that some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” Hence the stage the organization is at, could also impact the decision on flexi-working.
Having said that, we believe that most companies will not tread on the path opted by Yahoo! or HP. In fact in India and across the world, there is a perceptible change in attitudes not just towards working from home but the larger space of flexible and independent working. Let us take a look.
1: Choice over compulsion
In the past, many individuals tended to take up flexible working, especially freelancing a bit grudgingly. Prior commitments to home, family business or something else meant that freelance was the only route to satisfy their monetary or emotional needs, even though they would have liked to be in a regular job. Not anymore. Increasingly, a lot of people working on freelance projects or on part-time assignments are doing so as an active choice.
The opportunity to not get tied to a single company and handle a variety of projects, the flexibility to work according to your own time and work-style as long as you deliver by the agreed deadline and the ability to get more done as you don’t get clogged in unproductive meetings, are some big advantages that are attracting talent towards flexible working today. Another hidden benefit is the huge savings on daily commute time. This is acquiring increasing significance as our roads become malicious time-wasters, fuel-guzzlers and mental tormentors. Finally, the crucial work-life balance that we all crave for is something that this role is very good at fulfilling.
2: Companies welcoming flexible workers with open arms
More and more organizations are now realizing the benefits of embracing flexibility. With the world becoming networked, this allows organizations of any size and scale to attract talent from all over the world. For start-ups, taking independent specialists helps put a cap on crucial overheads. When you are in your early stage of development, you would rather focus on your core than get bogged down by hiring, payroll and administrative costs.
For companies looking at fulfilling an urgent business need such as a new product launch, in-depth analytics or fund-raising, flexibility enables them to take professionals for short bursts who do the job without adding to the company’s permanent costs. While for companies such as Hindustan Unilever Limited, believing in this concept has meant opening the door to a whole new segment. HUL has instituted a program called, ‘Career by Choice’ through which professionals get associated as consultants and work flexibly on live business projects ranging from 6 months to a year. They get to choose their work timings and working days in consultation with your project guide.
These are not isolated cases. This space only seems to be growing. According to Indian Staffing Federation, flexi hiring in the IT industry is set to increase from 10 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020. By 2025, the Federation expects 10 per cent of the overall workforce in India could be working in a flexible capacity through staffing companies.
3: Beating stereotypes
Not so long ago, the word, ‘freelancer’ conjured up very typical images in the head. A writer, an architect, or an interior designer. Today, however, the boundaries are expanding to fill people with a variety of skills and talent.
Research is one big area where companies are investing, opening up the need for qualified market researchers. Consumer research, financial research, even pharmaceutical research requires specialists for limited duration. Finance and accounting is another area where companies of all sizes are happy to outsource work.
Even traditionally sacrosanct roles such as marketing, where it was hard to imagine not having permanent employees, is a function now open to independent workers. Business development, human resource and consulting are other critical roles witnessing a mainstreaming of freelancing.
The entire digital space too has thrown open a slew of opportunities for information architects, programmers and website designers, who are more than willing to provide their skills for project-based work or part-time employment. Further, given the complex and rapidly changing nature of technology, organizations are also looking at technology consultants in addition to their internal tech teams. They are using them to help make sense, keep pace and extract the best out of emerging technologies for their businesses. Finally, the original creative freelance writer for a newspaper or magazine now has company in content writers specializing in various domains (such as business, finance, food, automobile, technology) working for websites, both Indian and international.
What is also evident from all this is that flexible and independent working now goes much beyond working remotely or the downmarket ‘part-time job’. Niche service providers, advisory and boutique consultants with specific domain expertise, temporary experienced faculty at universities are but a few roles that are part of this ever-growing segment.
Thus, as companies become more adaptable in order to stay competitive and people demand more from their lives, the need for flexible working will only intensify in the years to come.