As we gradually emerge from the lockdown, there is a growing belief that the work-from-home model may have efficiencies to offer, both for the individual as well as for organisation. For e.g., there is the obvious savings in commute time (at a personal level) and office space (organisation levels). It can potentially contribute to greater well being too. If this is to be the new normal, at least for part of the workforce, many factors need to be considered more deeply and designed for to ensure its benefits are accrued to all stakeholders. Here are some preliminary ideas based on our survey of leaders (~50 across industries and geographies)
Technology and infrastructure: For this new normal to work as a viable option into the future, three main issues must get addressed:
- Home infrastructure– Computers/laptops, high speed internet or even a dedicated space in the home is a luxury for a large part of the workforce. This gap in infrastructure needs to be addressed, likely by the organisation.
- Access to secured systems– This is key, especially for banks and financial institutions and businesses that require high levels of information security
- Digital literacy of team–There will a learning curve to master the technology required to work remotely, particularly for businesses not used to functioning in a paperless way
“The biggest thing I learnt is there can be work without paper…the lack of physical infrastructure like appropriate furniture air-conditioning etc. can be challenges.” —– Ranganathan Subramanian (Edelweiss)
“Working from home can indeed be very effective if I can also restructure the organizational processes for how communication, socialization and coordination happens —– Jyoti Vaswani (Future Generali)
Team capability and nature of role
Work from home seems to work better for certain kinds of roles and teams. Leaders reaping benefits from this arrangement mention four elements to making it successful:
- A capable second line– team members who are empowered to make choices, move things forward and do not require minute supervision
- Work arrangements that permit a high degree of autonomy– by autonomy we mean the freedom to organize own work, sequence things the way the individual wants and make choices about how the work gets done. Roles requiring close supervision do not lend themselves well to this model
- Work streams that are less interdependent– Where one person’s work is tightly meshed with another person’s delivery, pace slowed down considerably. Leaders who had to manage such teams had a tough time ensuring completion of work
- Existing practice of agility– leaders who were used to transition made early choices to work-from-home and set up processes that could enable them to stay productive. For e.g., the founder of a Bangalore based start-up said his team has written code and sorted glitches out more productively in the past 6 weeks than ever before. Those coming from more stable-state environments (e.g. insurance or government jobs) found it harder to adapt
Overall, for teams with a strong work ethic, working remotely created fewer disturbances.
“My big learning is to empower people even more. Organisations (in the normal course) are way too bureaucratic. So many answers and solutions can be expedited if people could be equipped to make decisions rather than have to make the call or send email to someone else.” —–Deepak Ramachandran (Senior banker, Mumbai)
Extent of interaction with others (high or low touch roles)
There are some roles that require the personal touch and therefore unlikely to move to a work from home format. These include:
- Jobs requiring in-person vetting/ verification– In banking services for example or jobs that require submission of field reports after inspection, etc.
- Jobs that depend for their success primarily on influencing people– such as sales, consulting
- Jobs that rely more on tacit norms than clearly defined processes or outcomes
“Short bursts of ‘work from home’ are doable and have been a part of my life for some time given my role… not a practical option over an extended period. In a ‘high touch’ profession like consulting, I need to meet people for meaningful outcomes.” —– Raghu Gullapalli (MD at a global consulting firm)
“Don’t think it can completely replace working in office, especially for a utility company” —– Ricky Uchil (VP,Adani AEML)
Impact of isolation on creativity, team spirit and well-being
There is the simple human need to stay connected with others and see them in person rather than only through a screen. Many seemed to miss sorely the informal interaction with people at the office. They missed the ease of communicating in person as against the intensive effort required over a video call.
“Discussions which I thought could be best done in a personal meeting are very well being done using technology with similar impact…having said that, I do miss the conversations over lunch and coffee moments with my colleagues which helped break monotony, build bonds and create broader perspectives. Virtual coffees don’t feel the same!” —–Divya Dhall (Colgate-Palmolive)
Almost all leaders we spoke to – across domains – were re-looking at the way they organized their work (the reflection extended beyond the binary choice of work from home or not). As the lockdown opens up, hopefully the good habits we have developed during this time – around better communication, use of technology and planning of work continue to stay in force. But other factors still need exploring before this work-from-home model is advocated as a long term solution for all.