In a pre-COVID world, a normal day for an average Asian (or an Indian household) would begin at dawn with a couple (usually both employed somewhere), sweating to get their children to school. This would be followed by swinging into an early morning rush of getting ready for work, arranging breakfast & lunch - as there could be aged parents at home. And then driving to their respective workplaces, navigating slow morning traffic. But getting to work is an important routine of the day that’s a part of everyone’s life!
While we talk about mornings on a working day, how can we not talk about the millennials and Gen Z – the primary drivers of the new-age workforce. They perhaps live with their families, or rather joint families, or may be co-live in apartments with others from their generation. Their mornings wouldn’t be any different – a mega marathon of sorts from home to work.
While for the rest, workplace would imply a mere work environment where one goes to collaborate with colleagues to meet business objectives and goals, there’s more to coming to work that the millennials and Gen Z look forward to besides making careers. It is their desire to seek a social and community environment at their workplace. While they are tech-adept and can pretty much keep work and a social circle separate, they do choose social peer groups at work in order to make their workplace more experiential.
While some of them stay with their parents, many of them opt to stay in a community-environment e.g. shared rented apartments or co-living spaces - to enhance community ties and create meaningful interactions. From such places they create their social groups which may comprise of those working at competing firms.
Now let’s get all the protagonists across the above two scenarios confined to their respective home/residential living environments through an enforced work-from-home plan as a result of the breakout of a global pandemic.
Everyone is mandated to stay indoors, all public places including offices are closed. Social distancing is the talk of the town and the need of the hour. People and organisations have pivoted to create a global rollout of a work-from-home strategy in order to adhere to the new social distancing norms.
So, it is natural to have discussions on whether work-from-home will become a new way of working for the majority. Will the up-side that employers and employees are witnessing in terms of cost savings, saving on commute time with no concerns on productivity, make this situation that we have been forced into, a choice for the future?
The question that arises is – does work from home really work? And will it continue to work as we embrace the new normal?
Well, in the non-COVID world, work-from-home was to facilitate the work life balance of our employees. It was never a part of business strategy. However, now work-from-home is a necessity to protect our people from a potential exposure to the deadly virus.
But there is a plethora of challenges that our businesses may encounter if work-from-home becomes the dominant new normal.
The home office setups and shared accommodation premises comprising the millennial workforce may need to accommodate for more than one working professional within the confines of a home. As a result of which privacy, data security and overlapping conversations will not create the most optimal productivity environment. It goes without saying that resource and time sharing in an environment which already does not match the amenities offered by a formal workplace poses a set of unique challenges as well.
The technology and work product safety conundrum are a key piece to consider. While technology may enable work-from-home, home networks and tech facilities cannot be compared with commercial amenities. Network availability and speeds at homes are notoriously unreliable amid power outages or breakdowns (especially in India) and low redundancies. Usage of video technology creates lag in real-time communication due to network bandwidths - this impacts spontaneity and idea-filled discussions accompanied as they are with overlapping conversations. While phones, of course, notoriously cut out the personal touch. Access to network servers storing critical data and linking processes would prove to be cumbersome on home networks, not to mention that security concerns will arise. Many tech firms will need to invest in creating such tools that enable data security and most importantly, allow for remote access to sensitive data with a concurrent change in client contracts which may not prove to be the easiest.
Stanford economist, Nick Bloom who has a been a big advocate of WFH believes that the COVID induced global rollout of WFH is in fact a productivity disaster as unsuitable spaces and no choice of in-office days while working alongside kids, will not support the productivity improvement being extolled. In an article carried by the Economist, he also predicts that there will be a sharp decline in patent applications in 2021, directly linking enforced work from home to a decline in innovation.
The current COVID situation has created an enforced environment for work-from-home. During this time, people are indoors with their families, kids and pets and not to mention household chores. It is exactly the situation that a work-from-home policy intends to avoid for the employee. In its true spirit, WFH allows for flexibility but without the extraneous and ambient noises associated with a household. A change in the working environment envisaging a longer duration spent at home for work and no choice for coming into work, may prove to be counterproductive.
Even with a long-term work-from-home environment with associated benefits of reduced costs, employees avoiding a long commute and traffic, innovation works largely with in-person interactions fuelled by the ‘water-cooler effect’ which encourages impromptu and diverse discussions and viewpoints. The importance of face-to-face meetings cannot be stressed enough for generating new ideas and fostering an environment that allows one to be focused as well as motivated.
It is worth noting that previous such examples when leading global tech firms experimented with remote working, have discontinued it. A few learnings from there are encapsulated below:
a. Co-locating teams and giving them the choice to ‘work from home’ works better than enforcing the latter.
b. Social and workplace interactions designed to create a collaborative, yet collisional culture is what made firms spend on workplace design themes. These are backed by intensive studies that confirm increased productivity as well as innovation that drives technology companies.
c. Enforced ’work from home’ will need creating a formal home office, with monitoring from managers and usually issues arising around mandatory isolation in the ‘home office space’ during working hours. This is usually impractical in most ‘work from home’ situations.
None of us yet seem to have accounted for the firm spends that will be directed towards teleworking costs to improve the efficiency for those working from home. There are costs associated with online meeting software licences, getting employees up to speed with work from home by providing them laptops, communication devices and spending on data processing servers. This could be a big cost countering the whole cost savings argument being made for the remote working experiment.
This is what I believe will happen for the next few months as firms realign their strategies around returning to work. Social distancing will create ‘new normal’ workplaces with emphasis on hygiene and indoor environment quality, even as firms will become increasingly flexible with employees choosing to work-from-home.
And finally, we all love our families and spending quality time with them. But work-life balance envisages creating the right mix of time spent at work and taking out time during the day for family. A 24/7 facetime with family may also prove to be too much 😊, both for our families and for us with all parties needing some downtime from each other. Being offered a choice to work from home, rather than being forced into it is the key.
As we return to work there will be greater flexibility that organizations will be willing to experiment with. However, the social needs of humans, proven productivity gains through collaborative thinking, and need for belonging to a physical organization as opposed to a virtual world in not going away. While the pandemic will encourage more flexibility for employees, social distancing will mean reversal of a key trend – the per seat physical area which was getting squeezed over years will reverse.
Its abundantly clear that people are craving to get back to office work environment, get back to having face-to-face interactions in an environment where ideation and collaboration are organic, not forced. Where we are humans again.