100% Work from Home: Is it Sustainable in the Long Run?
In June 2020, Google announced that it will allow employees across the world to choose the work from home (WFH) option at least until June 2021. TCS too announced that it aims to have 75% of its global team working permanently from home by 2025, with 90% currently working from home. Fujitsu, Twitter, and Square have also embraced work-from-home-forever policies. While the list of top global companies adopting WFH is long, it is interesting to note that this is a response to the current pandemic, and both employees and employers have quickly adapted to this new normal.
However even the most enthusiastic, ‘take every chance to WFH’ kind of employees and employers will accede to growing concerns that 100% WFH cannot be the new normal forever. After all, employees across hierarchies have suddenly found themselves needing to carve out a conducive workspace at home, ensure a less-than-erratic internet connection, manage household chores alongside the day’s work, answer odd-hour calls from colleagues, and look up tips for working remotely! In just a few months, one key lesson learned is that a sustained WFH setup tends to blur the lines between the professional and the personal.
Likewise, managers, CEOs, and company leadership who floated out WFH policies as a buoy know fully well that staying afloat is different from sailing smoothly, steadily, and together.
So, is the current WFH trend a revolution? Absolutely. Will it be sustainable? Is managing 100% of the workforce working across a globally distributed team from home comprehensible? Read on for a multitude of perspectives from different stakeholders.
Balancing work and family life is easier said than done
Working from home is complicated – simply ask Professor about the viral BBC interview that his toddlers unexpectedly made their way into! Being at the office places you, at least physically, away from family obligations. It also allows you to follow some semblance of a structure in terms of office hours, personal time, and family time. In the current context of distributed teams, WFH has led to longer working hours, irrespective of holidays and time zones. A direct result is that many, particularly women, are expected to juggle household work during office hours.
Arshia Ladak, Head of Leasing and Business Development for Workspace by ANSR, explains,
“Finding a quiet space at home, with all the unplanned interruptions, is very demanding. Moreover, with the kids at home and the non-availability of domestic help, balancing everyone’s schedules, with the new demands of online work and schooling, while giving time for regular home chores and meals, is a big task. The ideal scenario is to care for the family and work as expected, but this requires immense physical and mental stamina and mutual cooperation between all members of the household, and often there are compromises one way or the other.”
The situation is even more difficult for families staying in apartments as finding a quiet space for extended periods of time could be a challenge. When you add in the perspective of the younger workforce who are sharing apartments with friends managing the daily schedule of things is all the more cumbersome.
From hiring to cyber security, remote management poses multiple challenges
Remote working requires a clear set of guidelines, efficient management, and a process-led communication system to be truly successful. Though a social media marketing company like like Buffer, which is well-known for operating in a fully distributed model with teams spread across 15 countries, thrives with this set-up, aspects such as remote hiring, security, and tracking employee performance and productivity are the main challenges that need addressing. For managers, to whom a Buffer-like setting is a pandemic-wrought necessity, handling a remote, or globally distributed team can team can easily lead to micromanagement and spiral into a range of trust and security issues.
Roli Singh, Head HR India at ANSR, elaborates,
“Hiring through virtual technology mediums like Zoom and Skype have helped us to continue with the recruitment processes, but they have their own limitations. The lack of personal interaction leaves much to be desired for the assessment of behavioral and cultural fitment of the candidates. The candidates also feel lost in the virtual world and take much longer to settle in the company.
We also need to keep in mind that every employee is unique and has different requirements to be productive from home and a lot of employees thrive within the social fabric that an office offers. Moreover, not all jobs are made for remote work and working from home should be looked at as only an interim solution.
Managers are also under increased pressure to ensure the teams stay productive and, often in such times, may resort to micromanagement. Further, with increased data sharing and the use of home devices, IT security is also a concern and ensuring protocols are drawn out and followed is another challenge.”
Leadership must give direction to everything from finances to company culture
Companies regularly sign long-term leases for office spaces and amid the nationwide lockdown, the TCS Chairman explained how work from home was only an added investment – no costs saved. Further, the traditional workspace was built for collaboration, which also provided common ground for imbibing the company’s values. Now, CEOs are pushed to forecast the long-term impact of remote working in a globally distributed team on the company’s financials and culture.
Arshia Ladak provides further insight,
“Our vision, goals, and approach to work all hinge on our core corporate values and the remote setup is a challenge to how we work. That said, collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack are helping refine what it means to communicate with clarity and leading to new ways of discovering our strengths. In the future, a partial work from home arrangement, wherein employees meet at designated times, can prove to be both productive and financially beneficial. But for the present, there are calculated decisions to be made.”
Questionable employee productivity at best
Research on UK employees by Huawei revealed that 75% of staff were happier with a work from home setup. A similar survey from Unipos showed that 79% of employees prefer having zero commute and 66% love the flexibility WFH affords. However, 25% also admitted to lower productivity while working from home and 45% say that creativity in terms of sharing ideas has taken a hit. Another survey disclosed that 4 in 10 women in India are experiencing high levels of stress during the current WFH set-up with 50% experiencing a drop in motivation when it comes to tackling workload. The problems of WFH are real, and more so with India’s digital infrastructure not being fully ready to embrace the distributed teams working concept.
Ravi Reddy, who leads Strategy for Workspace by ANSR, shares some practical issues,
“Working remotely from home is manageable, but it can be a lot more hectic and tiresome. In a line of work that requires continuous communication and interaction with different stakeholders across the organization, what you land up with is interrupted video meets, a slower work pace, longer work hours, but with the plus point of having to spend no time in commuting.
Things that we’d resolve with a brief conversation now require more collaboration and there’s no easy way to bounce ideas anymore. Further, with some working on a flexible schedule there is the expectation that you too will be always at your desk or phone. WFH is effective to an extent, but its downsides are apparent.”
The experiences of the months gone by have given all stakeholders a clear grasp of the upsides and downsides of working from home across a global team. While better policies may be implemented to improve the way we work from home, what seems clear is that 100% WFH cannot be the new normal. Rather, the post-COVID work arrangement is likely to feature hygiene-centered workspaces for physical interaction alongside regular, even institutionalized, provisions for remote work.