Digital tech and tools are no real substitutes for the joy of working together in the same physical space
Covid-19 has brought in its wake several unforeseen changes in our lifestyle, work from home (WFH) being one of the foremost. At the peak of lockdown in India, almost two thirds of the 4.3 million employees of IT-BPM sector were working from home. Despite the lockdown process being eased across the country, many businesses are rethinking the merits of working from office. Many of them have decided to postpone the reopening of their office to the third quarter of the financial year and some have announced their intention for a large percentage of their employees to work from home. Companies such as TCS and IBM have announced a time-bound plan to work towards this goal. Some companies have decided to permanently rotate their employees between work from home and work from office.
Several companies who are positively inclined towards WFH approach believe there can be substantial savings to the business. Around 1.5 to 2 times the cost of employees is the typical cost of rental for office space alone. Furnishing, cafeteria and transportation are other major costs which could be reduced with employees working from home. Thus economic rationale is a strong argument in favour of WFH.
However, businesses have to learn to adjust to new norms of networking and bonding in the cyberspace with the real connectedness and familiarity of people in the organisation building process taking a back seat. Building a common understanding of company culture and conducting business as per such norms of culture would pose a major challenge to the organisation. Those employees who had previously worked in the physical space and now have to resort to digital space for working would at least have the benefit of knowing personally their co-workers, but newcomers would be at a disadvantage and have to cope with an identity crisis. Tacit knowledge which was always difficult to capture when employees leave would become even more difficult to harness, with organisations mandating a large number of employees to work from home.
IT/BPM industry has created 1:4 indirect jobs in the tertiary sector and with employees being dissuaded from working from office, several million jobs associated with transportation, restaurants, pubs, hospitality, security and housekeeping will disappear. Our country needs 20 million new jobs to be created every month while protecting all current jobs in order to return to the growth rate of 7-9% every year. With the service industry, and particularly the IT/BPM industry, being a significant contributor to direct and indirect jobs in urban and semi urban locations, work from home will play spoilsport with the country’s well-being.
For a while, WFH meant flexibility and convenience, especially for working mothers. However in the long run, families would be pressurised to have a dedicated room for office work but not everyone can afford larger homes. Millennials sharing rooms or those staying as paying guests may not find WFH convenient for extended periods of time and would run the risk of losing out on job opportunities if firms insist on WFH.
Further, working alone from home can result in psychological disorder. Even if companies partly compensate the cost of working from home, plans to give up lease of commercial spaces and expecting significant numbers of employees to work from home partly or fully may only work for individual businesses. It is not a welcome sign for society and the nation. However versatile digital technologies and tools are, they are no real substitutes for the joy of working together in the same physical space.
The writer is chairperson, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company