As India Inc braces itself for return to office, employees, specially in sectors like IT, consulting, etc, have been demanding continuation of ‘work from home’ (WfH). A recent survey by CIEL HR Services found that of close to 2,000 employees in 600 companies, 67% were even ready to quit jobs if denied the WfH option.
With the pandemic came the world’s biggest-ever workplace experiment. The immediate popular verdict was: remote working works, and has benefits too. Soon enough, WfH gave way to WfA (work from anywhere). Companies, of course, expected WfH to yield to a return-to-office regime once the infections seemed to be abating—only, the second Covid surge soon negated any such plans. When large cities faced reverse migration, smaller ones offered more space at less expense. Many opted for professional co-working spaces, for WfA. With links enabling companies and people to engage beyond geographies, WfH/WfA was not just location-agnostic, but also cheaper and greener too.
Notwithstanding its benign effects, WfH in most cases was viewed as a temporary fix. Defining WfH as “home-based teleworking as a temporary alternative working arrangement”, the ILO estimated around 18% of workers worldwide engaged in occupations suitable for WfH with requisite infrastructure. Those working in plants, warehouses, supply chains, or in hospitality businesses, etc. perforce needed to be physically present. Terming remote work an “aberration”, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, etc got counted among the most ardent supporters of the status quo ante. For many, prolonged work from home,missing the buzz of the office and spontaneous interactions with colleagues with occasional light banter, tends to create stress.
Meetings on Zoom or Teams can’t provide energy, warmth and understanding that physical get-togethers do. Recreating social connectivity, that enables people to be collaboratively productive, is not easy in virtual and hybrid settings. Technology is vital, but not enough. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing”.
Many tech CEOs fret that strict return-to-office mandates will put off restless software engineers, warn that employees will jump ship if rules are too restrictive. A growing trend indicates employees want more choices on when and from where to work. While most are keen to attend office, especially for collaborative work, they want flexible and fewer workdays. Employer expectations appear in line with the seismic shift in employees’ thinking. Tata Steel intends to continue with its “Agile Working Model”, enabling WfA for employees; even those based at designated locations can work from home.
The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, in terms of increased unemployment and domestic responsibilities, makes WfH a favoured option. The flexibility of location and work schedules would indeed attract more women. TeamLease reports a 25-37% increase in the number of women applying for jobs and getting employed in IT, e-com, healthcare, retail, knowledge process outsourcing, pharma, automotive—it is likely that the WfH has played no small role in this.
A Mint-Bain India survey of some 105 CEOs found less than one-third thinking of remote work to be the present and not the future. According to a report on India’s job market, The Pandemic and White Collar Migration, 67% of the country’s large and 70% of mid-size firms would not continue remote working, post the pandemic—asserting the credo that culture outweighs convenience. In contrast, BCG’s recent Workplace of the Future survey found 60% of employees wanting flexibility in where and/or when they work, autonomy to decide WiO (work in office) or WfH. The new workplace will perforce be modular and agile, online as well as offline, multi-locational, facilitating collaboration and productivity.
As Peter Drucker often maintained, an organisation must evolve strategy that enables it to derive results in an uncertain environment; corporates are re-imagining the new future of work, to be future-ready. Today, the fusion of business and technology unfolds immense new possibilities; collaborative virtual workspaces are becoming a new normal; companies are embracing hybridisation as never before. Citing studies, PepsiCo maintains employers who offer flexible work see a 15% rise in productivity, 31% less absenteeism, and 10% less turnover.
“Remote” work wouldn’t mean that all or most employees always work from home; employees may split their time between home and the workplace. As the recent PepsiCo policy under ‘Work that Works’ delineates, company managements can choose what work can be done remotely, and what needs be done in offices. Like Mercedes-Benz India opting for a hybrid model with 50% of non-production staff on campus, Tata Consultancy Services is transitioning into a 25X25 hybrid mode with no more than 25% of its associates working from an office at any given time, spending no more than 25% of their time in the office.
With change now happening so rapidly, it gets tough to predict what the deep future may hold. Paul McDonald of consulting firm Robert Half anticipates that employers will be more open to flexible work formats, including combining time at the office and working from home, workers having the flexibility of working from home and going to office occasionally for team planning, capability building, and social connect.
The author is Senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi Views are personal