The “comfort fort” of WFH and its perils
For many industry leaders and their employees, WFH has become the norm to follow, in 2021. What had begun in the year of the pandemic as a stop-gap measure to address forced social distancing in the workplace, has become a tried and tested model that an increasing number of top company executives swears by. In December 2020, the Economic Times reported that executives across leading companies were of the opinion that location constraints were no longer a problem – WFH had improved flexibility and productivity, and could become a permanent mode of operations, for many functions. However disruptive it may have been when first introduced several months back, this new approach for running businesses now finds itself firmly situated within the comfort zone of the emerging workplace.
Of course, it’s human nature to want to remain within one’s comfort zone, or if somehow displaced from it, to look for new ones. The problem, however, arises when one’s clinging on to such a new-found comfort zone assumes the rigid dimensions of a medieval fort. Picture this in the context of WFH. The heart of the fort is the keep – and in our context, this stands for the position that WFH has served our business well, amidst the worst possible circumstances imaginable, and so it’s only logical that it be continued. The keep hall and its adjoining tower are now shaped into being. For any fort, though, the level of security enjoyed by the inhabitants, depends on the strength of its walls. These walls are agents of reason and persuasion. Therefore, all around the keep, we begin to construct the turreted ramparts of our arguments in favour of WFH – flexibility, productivity, cutting down of employee commute, seamless business meetings powered by online mediums... the wall of benefits stands tall and seemingly impregnable.
With this girdle of security achieved, we can perhaps venture out tenuously, dig a moat, and fill it with water, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for intruders. The moat is guided by the principle of exclusion, and in our case, this comprises the arguments that we put up, to exclude dissenting opinions, alternate approaches and above all, critical inquiry. Economics is by far the deepest moat. WFH results in real cost savings for the company – if the employees want to return to office, where will the savings, e.g., with regard to overheads, be recovered from? No, better to continue with the status quo, and if the employees do get a bit tetchy from time to time, or claim to feel lonely, or alienated, surely that inconvenience is a meagre price to pay, compared to all the efficiencies gained? And now, it only remains for the drawbridge to be pulled up, for us to feel smug, snug and secure within the stony confines of our ‘comfort fort’. And in doing so, isolate ourselves from all other modes of thinking.
What many perceive as the strengths of the ‘comfort fort’ built around the model of WFH are in fact its greatest weakness – its inflexibility, its immovability. Conduct this little thought experiment. Fast forward through several swift months, punctuated by many hundreds of millions of immunizing jabs in the arm. From the standpoint of public health, we are at a stage where the social congregation of carpools, metro rides and office cubicles, no longer presents a threat to the employees’ welfare. At the same time, intense digital fatigue, coupled with the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by employees, overshadow the productivity gains during the halcyon days of WFH. At this point, the solution, in the form of a “Return To Office” (RTO) mode of work, stares everyone in the face. Except that the inhabitants of the ‘comfort fort’ castle are most loathe to abandon the approach they’ve come to own so zealously.
Faced with the prospect of incessant disruptions, mindfulness – rather than rigid, inalienable positions – becomes the need of the hour. While WFH may be kosher in the short term, it’s prudent to start pulling down the props of its comfort fort. And to replace it with flexibility, meditative early morning walks in the compound, a conscious yearning towards new ways of thinking about and doing business, demonstrating a deeper focus and engagement in the here and now, instead of clinging onto preconceived notions and positions of the past, and a renewed belief in the crowd-sourcing of ideas, novelty and innovation.