Mumbai: What will it take to make work from home stick?
As the country enters its second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, work from home (WFH) has moved from being a lockdown trend to a signal that the future of work — and the open office — is no longer what we’re used to.
Murat Erer, senior insights analyst, LinkedIn, pointed out in a blog post that globally the volume of job searches using the “remote” filter increased by 60% between March and May 2020. “India leads the pack in terms of remote job application growth,” Erer said. Even the ministry of commerce is considering making WFH a permanent solution for employees of IT companies working out of special economic zones, the Economic Times reported recently.
The benefits outweigh the pain, professionals agree.
When the lockdown was announced in 2020, Parveen Mahtani was just over a month into her new job as chief legal officer at Mahindra Lifespace Developers Ltd. She now believes that WFH is the ecologically-sound choice, not just because of the reduction in vehicular emissions, but also the reduced reliance on paper it necessitates.
“It was tough to juggle between work and home discussions and have meetings with my kids doing their work in the background or the dog barking,” Mahtani said. But the return to WFH has one unique advantage: “Because we started relying more on document management software in 2020, it’s reduced the volume of paper we go through.”
A few, like author and columnist Aparna Piramal Raje, saw productivity peak in the absence of distractions. “I could focus my complete attention towards writing my book, as there was no way to travel or do anything else,” she said.
“In 2020, when the pandemic required us all to switch to remote work, it [wasn’t easy in the beginning]. Now, over a year into it, we’re looking at this as a possible new working model,” said Minakshi Achan, executive vice-president of network brand and creative head, Star & Disney India. In the pre-pandemic world, commuting between her apartment in Bandra (West) and her Parel office took an hour and a half. “Now, one isn’t stuck in traffic jams for hours.”
However, WFH had its downsides. Anil Nair and Sheetal Parekh, partners in STEM card games company Pretty Geeky said their earnings dried up in 2020 as the restrictions on movement meant they couldn’t transport products from their Sion warehouse to buyers.
So what will it take for WFH to become truly sustainable?
According to Vivek Pandit, director, McKinsey & Co, a consultancy firm that helped its clients make the shift to WFH last year, a hybrid work model, which involves a combination of WFH and clocking in at an office would likely stay even after the second lockdown ends.
He based his findings on a McKinsey survey — which built on research conducted by McKinsey Global Institute and looked at 800 jobs and 2,000 tasks carried out by working professionals in nine countries — which also pointed out that the potential for remote work is highly concentrated among “highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies”. “Remote work thus risks accentuating inequalities at a social level,” the report said.
What’s more, the report stated, certain sectors lend themselves more readily to remote work. “Finance and insurance have the highest potential, with three-quarters of time spent on activities that can be done remotely without a loss of productivity. Management, business services, and information technology have the next highest potential, all with more than half of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely.”
By comparison, sectors like agriculture and retail services — where a vast majority of India’s 464 million work force is employed — don’t lend themselves to remote work.
All the same, the report found that globally, more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they did from an office, and if remote working took hold at that level, then at least three times as many people would be working from home than before the pandemic. This would have a profound impact on everything from transportation to consumer spending.
Studies have shown that companies need to re-look at work flexibility more seriously, to enable their employees to work from their homes, as these often come with multiple demands: of space, time, and attention.
“Last year, we realised that many in our team were experiencing inner turmoil. This time, we’ve been able to assure them on many levels – including on the issue of job security – and keep morale high. But a lot of organisations aren’t able to do the same,” Shobhan Kothari, partner at the award-winning architectural firm ADND, said.
Recently, Columbia University looked at the experiences of 226,638 people across Asia, Europe and North America. The study found incidences of depression and anxiety across all regions on account of the deterioration of relationships and the distancing due to the pandemic. Other studies have shown how a lack of communication with employees results in anxiety, which is known to decrease work performance, reduce job satisfaction, and negatively affect interpersonal relationships at work.
“A lack of vision for post-pandemic work puts talent at risk. Teams should share frequently what works and what doesn’t, and companies should listen actively,” Pandit said.
Nair of Pretty Geeky believes his employees could be just as productive working from home, but Nair, himself, can’t wait to get back to an office. CEO and managing partner of advertising firm L&K Saatchi & Saatchi until 2019 – where his “office was like a lounge” -- Nair isn’t at all thrilled about going back to working at his dining table due to the second lockdown in Maharashtra. “At home, people will always talk to you when you’re on a business call.”
Space Matrix, a multinational design consultancy headquartered in Singapore, recently set up an experience centre in their Gurugram office to showcase new features that can be incorporated into the design of workspaces.
“‘Work’ isn’t the operative word when it comes to designing office spaces now,” says Akshay Lakhanpal, CEO, Space Matrix, India. The beta lab – as this space is called -- also allows clients to get an idea of how a contactless design might work: with features like a café that employees need not queue up at (orders can be placed on phones), remote-parking access, touchless sign-ins and so on.
Having got a taste of WFH, many executives now want to work in an environment that offers the sort of comfort that home does, he said. For those who cannot take work home, his company has found ways to bring a little touch of home to work: by introducing multisensory experiences like music and fragrance.
“Over the past year many organisations have made design changes for better air circulation; placing acrylic partitions between individuals; positioning workspaces to allow for six-feet distance between individuals. But this is all so new, how efficiently it works, remains to be seen,” Kothari said.