Building infrastructure to enable remote working will boost economy.
By Amitabh Kant
In February, TIME magazine called the coronavirus outbreak the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”. The world has been forced to rethink traditional work arrangements, transforming fundamental precepts of human resource management, and blurring the rigid line between board rooms and drawing rooms.
The prime minister, in a recent social media post, spoke of how the workplace is becoming Digital First, and how India has an opportunity to be the architect of a new era of flexible working spaces. In these, traditional ideas of corner offices and visible hierarchies would be fundamentally transformed.
Establishing flexi-work, nested on the tenets of individual choice and liberty, as the foundation of future work would have economy-wide benefits. Even before the pandemic, traditional work cultures struggled to keep up with disruptive innovations. Co-working spaces had begun to question the need for physical assets, while startups and tech giants like Facebook have been using a flexi-work model for nearly half a decade. The new business model stems from a simple idea: Workers are more productive when they can control their work environments.
Demographic factors amplify the need for flexi-work. There are more nuclear families with dual earner couples, ageing people tend to work longer, low-wage workers have varying work schedules. This heterogeneity within the workforce, combined with an increasingly competitive marketplace, has affected both employers, and employees. Yet, organisations have not adjusted in a systematic or nuanced way to account for new realities.
Thus, a large, qualified, and motivated workforce is shackled by physical and psychological constraints of long commutes and rigid shifts. There is also massive untapped potential—female labour force participation is ~ 26%, and only ~25% of employable persons with disabilities have jobs.
A Stanford study in a Chinese travel agency showed, remote working led to a 13% increase in employees’ performance, a 50% fall in attrition, shorter breaks, and fewer sick days. The employer saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent. Not to mention the environmental benefits and rise in productivity from reduced vehicular traffic—a study by the Boston Consulting Group finds that traffic jams in just four Indian cities cost $22 billion a year.
At the heart of flexi-work lie trust and accountability—trust on the employer’s part that the model will improve productivity and efficiency, and accountability on the employee’s part in ensuring timely project submissions. Further, flexi-work can be implemented across a range of jobs, from sales assistants to high-end consultants. Along similar lines as ESOPs, it can also be an effective tool to enlist employees as key stakeholders, in charge of deciding their involvement in the company’s future.
India, under its Digital India Initiative, has issued an innovation challenge to develop video conferencing solutions in high and low network scenarios. These will be critical to propel India’s economy forward. India’s flexi-work blueprint must include flexi-hours—non-rigid timings, predictability and choice over scheduling of overtimes, breaks, and shifts—and flexi-place, which allows for work from home or satellite locations. This will allow employers to attract and retain the best global talent, reduce office rental space, while also boosting worker productivity, lowering commuting and living costs, and improving work-life balance.
Flexi-hours can be piloted across sectors; flexi-place is more suited to the knowledge service sector, where technology may be integrated into daily functioning. Economic productivity will enhance as the focus shifts from inputs (attendance clocked) to outcomes (tasks delivered); a recent Regus report estimated that by 2030, India could see an economic boost of as much as $376 billion annually from flexible working.
Achieving this requires building adequate technical infrastructure. As per a recent report, over 50% of firms in India couldn’t support flexi-work due to inadequate infrastructure. Management of internet infrastructure, digital literacy, and up-skilling campaigns will, therefore, be key.
India’s private industry has an opportunity to innovate with progressive HR practices and promote a true knowledge economy which, as delineated by the PM, will foster greater adaptability, efficiency, inclusivity, opportunity, and universalism.
With a burgeoning knowledge sector and the second largest online market, India is ushering in the fourth industrial revolution. Leveraging the full potential of our demographic dividend will only be possible if flexi-work is established as a people-driven work movement—the real Jan Andolan, where people dictate how the workday unfolds. The time is right for a Gen-Flex, where people work smarter, harder, and happier, propelling India towards an accelerated growth trajectory.
The author is CEO, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal
Co-authored with Sarah Iype, Young Professional, NITI Aayog