When we welcomed the new year at the dawn of Jan 1st 2020, I don’t think anybody had a clue that we would be in for a shock. Three months down the line we got restricted to our homes under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. I’m not sure if anyone guessed that practices like wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing would become rituals! Thanks to the lockdown, working from home (WFH) has become our new routine, turning homes into our new offices.
As such WFH option is not something novel in India and it was already available to employees, particularly in IT. It’s an excellent option for people to take care of personal priorities without compromising their work expectations. A few decades back, before the rise of the IT Industry, there was no concept called working from home. The IT industry changed all that, thanks to reasons like remote delivery business model (since clients are mostly overseas), flexible work atmosphere, employee motivation tool etc. So, folks could catch up with personal stuff that they had dodged for a long time given the hectic project schedule. However, this option was not uniformly available across the IT spectrum. While some companies (predominantly MNCs) had a liberal policy to allow their employees to work from home for few days in a week or month, many other firms allowed it only in the case of a personal emergency, health condition, etc.
The stupendous success of WFH post lockdown
Let us talk about the current scenario across India post-COVID-19 lockdown. Without exception across the IT industry (even outside IT) WFH has become a real success. Almost 100% of the employees are working from home and they have been delivering applications on schedule and managing the infrastructure and operations of clients across the globe smoothly. We have hardly heard about any major disruption to business, which is indeed amazing. It is unprecedented how the IT Industry with the business size of $ 177B (FY19 , NASSCOM data) and employee strength of 4.1M people, can sail through such a major disaster like the Covid-19 pandemic! People continued with their business activities like project collaboration, management meetings, client calls, webinars, etc., as if they are working from the office with ultimate resources. Better network infrastructure (both broadband and mobile internet) surely helped people to manage their duties seamlessly. Had we encountered COVID-19 catastrophe 10 years back, I’m not sure if we would have managed business continuity so well.
Tremendous success with WFH is encouraging IT companies (even some outside IT) to think of extending it for forever. Can 100% of the workforce work from home? From working from office/campus model to completely working from home looks like a very ambitious target. Generally, businesses are showing a lot of enthusiasm as WFH provides good cost-saving opportunities on account of lesser real estate and admin expenses. It could well be a useful lever beyond offshoring, people pyramid, automation etc. As we analyze the pros and cons, some companies have already made up their minds that they are not going back to the pre-COVID-19 model. They are bullish about at least 50% of the workforce can work from home if not higher. Even new age giants like San Francisco based Twitter have announced that its employees can work from home, forever.
What are the possible risks involved? If WFH was successful in the last 10 weeks does it mean that it can be extended forever? Are there no other considerations/challenges? As far as the WFH model is concerned, one thing is clear. There are no major technology constraints and we are well set from the remote support framework (network connectivity/quality, smartphones, tools and other protocols) standpoint.
Possible challenges to make WFH mainstream
- Stressful Environment: Working from home for a long period means confined to the same place and lack of opportunities to socialize with colleagues, which can be quite stressful. It can affect the well-being of the workforce and productivity in the long run. A typical office environment not only helps people to relax, socialize and also creates emotional bonding.
- Lack of collaboration: Poor opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, poor access to tools and infrastructure means slower decision making and lower productivity. For example, at the office one can easily walk across to a peer or access the tools which help in quick problem-solving. A Face to face meeting beats a remote meeting any day.
- Social issues: Working from home for a long period means putting up with possible tantrums from family members and balancing between office work and family which can be quite tricky. This can lead to additional stress and loss of productivity. Also, expect family issues to spill over to the office!
- Last-mile infrastructure: Yes, people have managed the operations well during the lockdown period, but it doesn’t mean there are no last mile issues. Not everyone has consistent end point connectivity and noise-free office like environment at their homes. Think of a fact that 70% of the IT employees are bachelors who generally have shared accommodations. However, this may be addressed to some extent by compensating for better infrastructure and allowances.
- Management challenges: There are challenges in managing the team and keeping control of productivity. However, this issue can be solved in the long term through better tools and outcome/goal-based projects instead of task-based projects.
- IT Security under pressure: Robust IT security policy and management is a top priority. There could be issues due to the usage of unwanted software, hardware etc.
What is the way forward?
I am not arguing that an aggressive WFH model if not possible, but it may require a gradual and measured approach rather than a big bang. Some points to ponder:
- No one size fits all. Some may not prefer WFH at all and some people may not prefer long term WFH. Hence flexibility is required with the option to switch between office and WFH.
- A gradual increase of the WFH over the years may help in learning and addressing personal & social issues better.
- Policy changes may be required in HR, compensation, admin etc. Also gear up to face and manage newer people challenges as explained above
- Technology readiness towards the hardening of IT security and management of operations and productivity
- New Infrastructure paradigms are required like shared office spaces, intermediate office spaces (PODs) across cities, conference rooms on hire, modern co-living spaces, etc. Hence a lot of room for innovation.
There is no doubt that we are at an inflection point and the traditional office would have to undergo a sea change. But how fast will it happen and how far will it go?