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Remote working: A double-edged sword!

• Work from home has gained currency owing to the pan-Indian lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
• Some studies have shown that flexible work models like WFH can enhance the productivity of the labour, enhance employee retention and save costs for both the employee and the employers.
• On the other hand, challenges such as lack of proper internet services, data security and its unsuitability for manual production serious impede its adoption on a wider scale.
• In order to give a thrust to this model, industry players and the government need to come together and work out solutions pertaining to data privacy and overcoming infrastructural bottlenecks.

“Modern problems require modern solutions,” so goes the popular English adage. This saying has become particularly true in the context of work from home (WFH), model of work. WFH has emerged as a modern solution that has gained currency owing to the pan-Indian lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The extraordinary rise of the Internet has been pretty instrumental in facilitating this. Homes across the country, these days have become official meeting grounds, thanks to the availability of free video conferencing online applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Google Meet and Skype.

Given that a significant chunk of India’s workforce has resorted to this model  to ensure social distancing, this is the perfect opportunity for managements to test the feasibility of this form of flexible working model and to explore if it is suitable for the country in the long run.

THE PROS

The Centre for Economics and Business Research has said in its recent report (August, 2019) that US economic gains from a flexible working culture could accrue to approximately US$ 2.36 trillion. Titled The Potential Economic Impacts of a Flexible Working Culture, the study finds that if workers are provided with the right tools and technology, a large proportion of the US population could use working time more productively (92% for full-time workers), work more hours (65% if they’re part-time workers) or be more willing to work (69% if they’re currently unemployed or economically inactive). The study went on to predict a 10.2% boost to US GDP through the unemployed and economically inactive benefitting from a flexible working culture.

At the same time, companies can also enjoy a number of benefits from this work cycle. With fewer employees travelling to office on a day to day basis, WFH reduces the overhead costs borne by firms for meeting their operational costs such as electricity, water, office stationery, internet, telephone costs and refreshments for employees. Also, those companies that offer meals and cabs to their employees will not have to bear these costs any longer. At the same time, it can reduce the burden on natural resources, electricity consumption and help in reducing the pollution level. Further, these arrangements can lead to higher retention and the flexibility to hire good resources from a larger pool of talent such as working parents who are trying to juggle their family life with work commitments.

Besides being a blessing for the company and the economy, work from home has a number of benefits from the employee’s point of view. A flexible working model translates into a flexible lifestyle and schedule. As Iwo Szapar, CEO and co-founder at Remote-how, an online platform empowering the growth of remote work, explicates:

“Having a flexible schedule allows employees to juggle between work, hobbies, and time with friends, resulting in a positive work-life balance and also reducing workplace stress.”

Thus, WFH allows individuals to better manage their work-life balance. Another advantage that this prototype offers to the employees of the company is the potential reduction in commuting costs and travelling time. Individuals can utilise that time constructively to pursue whatever hobbies they have such as working out in a gym or learning a new dance form or language.

Source: State of Remote Economy Report’19

THE CONS

Despite the bouquet of benefits that WFH offers, there are certain issues which prevent it to be the sine qua non work model in the nation. The first and foremost challenge to its widespread adoption is that India’s businesses have a relatively uneven pattern of digitisation. Some sectors such as information and communications technology (ICT), professional services, and education and healthcare, have more digitally sophisticated companies than others like technology, such as transportation and construction. Millions of people in the country are employed in the informal sector —either self-employed or casual labour—such as hawkers, marketers, vendors, artisans, ragpickers & domestic workers with no minimum wages, no social security, and no option of working from home.

Another major drawback of this model is alienation from fellow workers. As Shivank Gupta, Senior Consultant, Deloitte Consulting, explains,

“One major drawback of remote economy that I can think of is that people think that physical connect is better than virtual connect and is more productive. Therefore, they should be taught how to effectively connect virtually by giving proper communication lessons, because physical communication is very different from virtual ones.”

Further, according to a latest report by Gartner, 54% of HR leaders have cited that poor technology and/or infrastructure for remote working are the biggest barriers to effective remote working. Struggling to get their act together, most companies sent  employees homewith age-old laptops backups and little knowledge about how to handle group chat and collaboration softwares like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams and Flock etc.

This may change with the incidence of the present lockdown. But of course, firms need to take proper security measures to safeguard sensitive client information. According to experts, India doesn’t have a data protection law or a dedicated law on cybersecurity or privacy. For this, companies should first ensure they have virtual private networks and cloud solutions so that basic security is taken care of even in a WFM environment. They should also clearly formulate WFH policies to prevent information from leaking.

Last, but not the least, according to a recent study, 99.8% of the workforce working remotely lacks at least one of these qualities: resistance to learning and exploring (95%), lack in practical communication skills (65%) and lack in planning and execution (71%).

Remote working is like a double-edged sword as it has its own share of pros and cons. While a pan-Indian application of this work model is not an immediate likelihood, Coronavirus has certainly given the country a flavour of this work model. However, in order to make this model a success in at least those sectors and job roles like IT & ITES where it can be practiced, the government needs to draft a legislation on data security and companies need to strengthen their IT infrastructure facilities offered to these employees.

Moreover, the success of the model depends specifically on the role and the individual’s motivation. A study by Harvard Business School found it suitable for patent examiners at the US Patent & Trademark Office. Productivity consistently increased among examiners with each step toward the full work-from-anywhere policy. It increased 4.4% when employees moved from working at home on a limited basis to the location of their choice. The research estimated a boost of US$ 1.3 billion to the US economy each year, based on a patent’s average value. 

However, the researchers also contended that patent examiners are a rare group, which does not need regular coordination with team members on a regular basis. For such workers, it could well be a win-win. But it may actually be counterproductive in creative roles, for instance, where a lot of cross-functional exchange of information and ideas is necessary. Similarly, sales function can be tremendously handicapped beyond the telecalling kind of sales jobs, where personal interface is unavoidable. 

To sum up, companies have to consider a work-from-home strategy carefully. They should neither take it too positively nor debunk it totally without closer scrutiny. With a well-conceptualised framework, it may actually do wonders for workforce motivation, productivity and organisational goals. 

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