Is the work from home trend here to stay in the post-COVID world? If so, what are the pros and cons on the way people live and work in the future?
By Swarnendu Biswas
In the last one-and-a-half years, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has not only brought unfortunate deaths to more than 37 lakh lives (according to the statistics provided by Worldometer; the actual figure may be much more) across the world’s close to 700 crore population, and caused huge economic distress and mental turmoil to many more millions but this pandemic could have short-and even long-term influences in myriad spheres of our lives long after humankind achieves a conclusive victory over this virulent virus.
And, if we reflect a bit we can infer that not all possible long-term impacts would necessarily adversely affect our well-being. One of the visible impacts of Covid-19 pandemic is the significant shift in our work environment from office cubicles to homes.
Of course, for blue-collared factory workers work from home (WFH) would not be a feasible option but for several other work profiles, working from home and being impressively productive is very much possible at the same time in this digital age.
Cost Benefits for Businesses
The pandemic has necessitated work from home to quickly evolve from a happening trend to a mainstream norm across several sectors and it would not be far-fetched to assume that this norm has a high probability to continue for many more years… long after the pandemic and its threat would cease to trouble us and remain only as sad memories and nightmares. And more importantly, the norm of WFH has high probability to gather momentum with the passing of years.
It is so because there are inherent economic advantages for businesses in adopting WFH model, which I am sure many corporates across the world have already realised and many others would realise soon.
“One cannot manage a team scattered around the country or the world in the same way and with the same tools as she/he did before. So, the need of the hour for organisations is to reinforce an agile and innovative work culture, irrespective of the pandemic”
Country Head, Emlyon Business School, France
For example, a company hires 500 people, for which it needs say three offices. Now say out of these 500 personnel 375 can function effectively from home with a laptop connected through Internet. Then the company would prefer those 375 people to work from home and only 125 people to report to office or say factory. This way the company needs to rent only one establishment instead of three. Not only the rent of two establishments but the costs of electricity, tea, snacks, stationery, depreciation, etc. of the other two establishments can also be saved in this manner.
“Significant growth in WFH options can save huge rental & associated operating costs for organisations. This would mean reduction in fixed expenses, especially for organisations operating out of big cities that attract very high rentals,” says Soraya Rebello, Vice President – CSR & Corporate Communications, Jakson Group. She, however, maintains that WFH cannot become a norm across all offices across all sectors. She has recently written a book called ‘Paving the Highway to Success from Home’ where WFH options are explored and and discussed elaborately.
“The growth of WFH can also reduce travel costs. Today we have observed that virtual meetings are possible across the globe thereby helping organisations to save on hotel stay, travel & other associated costs,” remarked Soraya. Yes, that is another reason for corporates to prefer WFH options wherever feasible. One can also infer that with WFH gaining momentum, business travels would decrease around the globe. This may further impact the already severely affected hospitality industry of India.
So, it doesn’t come across as surprise that Twitter declared in May 2020 that its workforce can keep working from home forever if they choose to. I feel soon the WFH option across many, many offices of the world would no longer be a choice for millions of employees; it would be become mandatory.
“As far as WFH trend is concerned, I think it should be long-lasting. In fact, several companies in USA have already expressed their intention to promote and provide this option. I believe that in India too we should be moving towards a hybrid office/WFH model. Of course, this will require a shift in mindsets and skills; both hard and soft,” observes Ashley Fernandes, Country Head, Emlyon Business School, a leading business school based in France. He says, “One cannot manage a team scattered around the country or the world in the same way and with the same tools as she/he did before. So, the need of the hour for organisations is to reinforce an agile and innovative work culture, irrespective of the pandemic.”
According to Nikunj Sanghi, Chairman, Automotive Skills Development Council, “Several businesses have implemented remote working in varying degrees. While this comes naturally to service industries, including retail, healthcare, education, entertainment, it is harder to do it for industries which need a physical location or a presence.” He prefers the broader term work from anywhere or remote working rather than the specific case of WFH to describe this new evolving work culture.
Nikunj adds, “This remote working trend has been gaining momentum in the last few years. COVID-19 will accelerate and catalyse it further.”
Can Benefit Productivity
It is not that only businesses are likely to gain from the benefits of WFH deal. Employees would also gain as their cost of commuting and considerable amount of time and energy (which they can use productively) would be saved if they engage in WFH instead of rushing to offices.
The suspicion that productivity can be compromised in WFH also sounds unfounded in this digital age, where employees can be easily asked to file daily productivity reports through e-mail or Whatsapp, and to and fro communication can also be frequently exchanged through these mediums, thereby facilitating in fixing accountability quite easily.
“Several organisations across the world have realised today that WFH can, in fact, ensure a more fruitful work environment compared to typical office cubicles, allowing employees in the process to enhance work-life balance. The current pandemic has changed the way we work, and more companies are turning to at-home solutions,” says Ashley while mentioning that a Stanford study of 16,000 workers in 9 months found that working from home increased productivity by 13 percent.
Nikunj says that working from home can be a way of the future. “With more companies exploring the benefits of remote workers, some believe it could bring the next wave of globalisation. WFH is the new mantra for many organisations as it leads to cost savings, convenience and productivity benefits if properly executed,” says the corporate leader.
“Since remote workers don’t have a hectic environment and the interruptions of unnecessary meetings, it is thought that this improves productivity. Moreover, since the stress of commuting is eliminated in remote working, workers can focus on their tasks rather than having to deal with the stress of the morning rush hour,” Nikunj asserts further.
“If you go by research, then you can see that work from home leads to more productivity, but certain things need to be kept in mind. In WFH environment, one needs to be a very good communicator to ensure that the employer knows that he or she is putting in his or her hundred percent in the work. At the same time there must be a lot of trust, understanding and clear work ethics between the employees and their manager to make the workers deliver their best in WFH environment,” explains Nikunj.
Less Stress on the Planet
WFH has other latent benefits too which may not be visible in the short-run but could have long-term impacts. One of them is the effect on environment. “WFH can also help in reducing the carbon emissions on earth & assist organisations in contributing towards a greener planet by bringing down pollution levels – a case we have witnessed in Delhi last year during lockdown,” Soraya elaborates.
“Every business is unique, but I believe that overall WFH taps into the current mainstream perception of People, Purpose and Planet,” pointed out Ashley.
“Several businesses have implemented remote working in varying degrees. While this comes naturally to service industries, including retail, healthcare, education, entertainment, it is harder to do it for industries which need a physical location or a presence”
Nikunj Sanghi, ASDC
But WFH has a flip side, which is becoming perceptible. “WFH for a long stretch of time can lead to digital fatigue, monotony, anxiety & thus can impact the mental well-being of individuals. Moreover, there are many bosses who don’t know when to switch off and WFH atmosphere gives further fillip to their ‘zeal’. Thereby they can cause mental & physical strain & eventually burnout among their subordinates,” reasons Soraya.
“However, WFH coupled with enough work breaks, physical exercise, training & interactive programmes, can boost productivity as employees get the best of both worlds of office & family by this way,” suggested Soraya pragmatically. She rightly believes that happy employees are productive employees.
IT is the Key
We can conclude that the possibility of the growth of WFH culture seems evident from the present trends as it can accrue cost benefits to the employers as well as employees and at the same time has the potential to enhance productivity.
However, the possibility of WFH becoming a norm in the post-COVID environment of India will largely depend on the speed of digitisation in the country to emerge as a welcome reality in the near future.