Knowledge workers relocating to their tier-2/3 hometowns could enjoy proximity to family, more purchasing power, less urban congestion, etc, without sacrificing their professional aspirations, while their employers enjoy better productivity and economics.
By Rohit Bhat & Suraj Subramaniam
The pandemic has ushered in a slew of sociocultural changes in our lives in a matter of months. (Our previous article painted a scenario where Covid-19 may be a protracted affair lasting years rather than months.) The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely that some of these changes may become permanent habits. One such change could be the advent of knowledge workers who work from anywhere (WFA).
Work from home (WFH) has evolved from a policy to a strategy. Pre-Covid-19, WFH was a ‘cool’ perk some employers granted their employees. The pandemic forced everyone into a mandatory mass WFH experiment. As a leader at a Southeast Asian unicorn points out, the early evidence from this experiment may be promising enough for some start-ups to strategically organise themselves as a WFH setup. Covid-19 might have catalysed a cultural change for which the technology bedrock already existed—laptops, broadband, continuous power supply, good video-calling applications and co-working spaces. Some large corporates are waking up to this being a fundamental re-imagination of their work architecture. IT behemoth TCS, for example, has set an aspirational target of moving 75% of its employees to WFH by 2025. Beyond equipping its employees with bandwidth and infrastructure, TCS will probably leverage cutting-edge collaboration software, evolve new team and organisational rituals, design elaborate training and on-boarding processes where new joiners spend time at local offices before ‘earning’ the right to WFH, redesign its office space to be less about ‘doing work’ there every day and more a space where teams collaborate, and ideate and build camaraderie on a weekly basis. In fact, co-working spaces may be an integral part of this new future where corporates might seek a distributed presence of on-demand collaborative spaces around the city, instead of being concentrated in one location.
Active video collaboration has become socially and legally more acceptable. Over the last two months, we have encountered in our daily lives and extended circle, large family calls, people who have gotten married, consulted a doctor for mild to serious ailments, struck a complex business deal, fought a court case or attended a political rally, over Zoom! Video lacks the social warmth of in-person, causes ‘Zoom fatigue’ from overdose in the short run, and we honestly don’t know the long-term costs yet (such as when we make young children take online classes). Like all other video disruptions of the last few decades—think TV, video games and smartphones—society will gradually forge a consensus here. Even technologically-conservative users like the judiciary, the regulators, hospitals and schools have adopted video. As the head of the Supreme Court’s e-committee Justice Chandrachud recently acknowledged, virtual courts cannot replace open court hearing, but virtual e-courts may be a more efficient alternative for minor matters such as traffic violations. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently allowed financial institutions to complete e-KYC via mobile video. Over time, an upshot of such cross-societal acceptance of video could cause a sharp reduction in the occasions mandating someone to be physically present in a big city. You could be based in a remote village and attend board meetings, execute complex financial transactions, and so on.
If WFH, why not WFA? Several CXOs in the start-up universe have reported how talent based in disparate locations across the country like Gorakhpur or Solapur continue to work at the same or higher productivity during Covid-19. This is particularly true for technical and creative jobs that involve individuals or tight-knit teams engaging in deep work. The more ambitious of the lot are laying the groundwork to shift to a WFA paradigm to leverage the best talent at the cheapest price. You can work with a world-class designer based in Hampi without having to pay for that person’s Bengaluru or San Francisco cost of living.
Lest we get carried away, it must be said that views on WFH/WFA are hardly unanimous with detractors pointing to several limitations. There is teething trouble with poor bandwidth and lack of suitable furniture or space; not everyone lives in a house they want to work in, especially those in paying guest accommodations.
Productivity may be high now but could taper over time as teams exhaust precious social capital accumulated during their time together pre-Covid-19. Inducting new team members is challenging in WFH, and particularly younger employees are denied mentorship opportunities that offices provided. Working parents, in particular women, have been overburdened owing to multi-tasking work and home/childcare under WFH. For some people, working in an office is a healthy escape from their circumstances; for example, one CEO spoke of women from conservative families finding a sense of identity at the workplace. Others argue that it is difficult to build an effective team culture when people are not working together and that working in clusters like San Francisco or Bengaluru come with valuable ecosystem benefits that cannot be replicated. WFH evangelists counter that some of these issues are caused by the pandemic, not WFH. For instance, reopening schools will debottleneck working parents.
Still, a push towards a distributed architecture can be a force for good. Knowledge workers relocating to their tier-2 and tier-3 hometowns could enjoy proximity to family, more purchasing power, better air quality and less urban congestion, without sacrificing their professional aspirations, while their employers enjoy better productivity and economics. The presence of these white-collar workers with a taste of city life could be a catalyst for more retail, restaurants and other infrastructure and services in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. To paint a picture, one of the world’s best restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca, is situated in Girona, the 94th largest city in Spain with a population of 94,000 people. India’s 94th largest town is Sangli in Maharashtra with 500,000 people. This could be a small step towards building more economic and cultural bridges between the metros and the hinterland. Simultaneously, tier-1 cities could see a reduction in traffic congestion, pollution and, possibly, even real estate costs, engendering a win-win proposition for knowledge workers and society at large.
Authors are part of management team at Airavat Capital