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Work from Home (WFH): Perk or Bone of Contention?

Newspaper: Avenue Mail

Date: 9th July 2021

A new debate that could not have been imagined a year ago is raging globally that has created a divide between the working class and their employers. The debate is about the status of work from home (WFH) now that Covid-19 is assumed to be receding across the world with an improved rate of vaccination.

WFH is not a new concept and it’s been around for decades or even centuries in one form or the other. Individuals in the business of a dentist, a beautician, a tailor, a cloth merchant, or a doctor, have converted part of their homes as their workplaces and operated from the comfort of their drawing rooms since time immemorial. Housewives across the globe have been running cottage industries from their homes. The early pickle industry, snacks, and papad industry workers were and still are working from home. Entrepreneurs who sold sarees, decorative jewellery, and dress material have operated from homes across India for decades now. The industrial revolution in the United States and Europe from 1760 to 1840 forced workers to come out of their homes to the factories of large-scale manufacturing.

Offices and workplaces became a part of daily life at the start of the 20th century. In India, post-independence, the dreams of a new-born country helped large-scale industrialization with the help of public sector units (PSUs) from 1960 onwards which propelled people to work from offices. The liberalization reforms of 1991 exploded the need for office spaces when a flood of global MNCs entered India and demanded a certain discipline and inculcated a working culture. Founders of some of the largest companies in the world today started their start-ups in a garage at home. Work from home has been a partially part of the corporate structure as an HR policy. Leading companies who have adopted the best HR practices have offered remote working for some days of the year or month to their employees. In the 1980’s tech company IBM had a flexible policy of coming to the office and a large part of its workforce was working from home. The idea of “telecommuting” was invented which meant the practice of working from home, making use of the internet, email, and the telephone. If the invention of the telephone, encouraged people to report to a desk job, the increase in chocking traffic and pollution in large cities called for options to work from home. Organizations across the globe were never comfortable with complete remote working for their employees.

The world was compelled to adopt the work from home concept in a mass way with the advent of the Covid pandemic at the end of 2019. Once China and the United States were hit by the pandemic, companies shut down their workplaces for the fear of infection, cascading a similar reaction from other countries and companies on a global level.

Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook announced the WFH policy immediately taking note of the seething infections in the United States by early March 2020 and advised their regional offices in other countries to take country appropriate actions. India followed a total lockdown by end of March 2020 where all companies and factories had to shut down workplaces and announce remote working. Since a pandemic of this scale and size had never been encountered before, organizations took a carefully calculated policy decision to introduce remote working with guidelines till the virus lasted. The first announcement was to extend WFH till September 2020, then it was extended to January 2021. Before the second wave hit India, several organizations had asked employees to return to the office, naively assuming the pandemic was over. The deadly second wave forced another set of closures and WFH was activated again. Now that the second wave has receded, WFH is again under scrutiny by the top management, underestimating the prophesied third wave.

Meanwhile, people who often struggle to ask for leaves from their managers were delighted at the prospect of not having to hang out on local trains in rush hour, struggle through serpentine traffic jams, and lose precious time they could have spent with their family. Paresh Thombre who works in a fast-growing FMCG company in Mumbai, thanks WFH for saving a 4-hour two-way draining commute to the office thereby giving him ample time to spend at home with family apart from being productive at work. Mohit Razdan who is at a senior position in a large organization, working from home in Kanpur, is ecstatic to maintain a work-life balance by working remotely. Dr. Sona Sharma, a medical professional and science enthusiast, argues that though “on a short-term basis WFH is an indisputable benefit, in the long run, lack of social interaction can also affect one's mental health”. Talent Acquisition Manager Durga Bisht who works with a leading retailer presents both sides of the argument “WFH affects role to role basis, though we all agree working from home has given us time to focus on health and spend time with family but a face-to-face impact in my role is higher which is difficult in this virtual age. Work life balance has taken for a toss with no limit on office timings as personal space has got invaded with home becoming the new office”. She calls WFH “not completely a boon.”

Amidst this debate, a fresh announcement from Apple Inc. raised eyebrows when employees were asked to return to the office from September 2021. In an internal survey, 90% of the employees opted for indefinite work from home option. The employees have argued to maintain the status quo and extension of the work from the home policy but the senior management has not relented yet. Apple says they have only directed employees to return to the office three days a week. Apple advocates its hybrid policy of flexible working against the concerns of its staff because it “believes that in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future” disregarding the fact that Apple delivered record-breaking sales last year despite the employees being on WFH mode.

WFH is fast becoming a perk and a bone of contention at the same time. Organizations are now dangling WFH as a carrot while negotiating with new talent equating it with benefits like pay hikes, medical benefits, vacations, and the like.

 

Talented managers are switching jobs to companies that offer the prospect of WFH over the jobs that do not allow remote working. The global talent pool is examining its options and seriously considering WFH as a benefit while choosing to join a new organization. Hence companies who are insisting on employees return to offices are at loggerheads with their staff on the degree of flexibility. Top companies across the world have billion-dollar head offices and sprawling campuses which are lying vacant for months now, prompting them to force employees to make use of their workspaces and return to work.

Before organizations start recalling their employees back to the office, they must consider the huge benefits of WFH. Companies across the world have saved huge costs by shutting down offices, saving in electricity, transportation, and office operational costs. WFH has had also another unlikely benefit of office politics (which can be nauseating sometimes) coming to a halt due to the compartmentalization of remote working. Other positives also include improvement in livelihoods, betterment in work-life balance, the flexibility of working hours, reduction in pollution emanating from vehicles, and increasing employee productivity.

Work from home is here to stay. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught the world that it can get its business done efficiently, smoothly, and profitably by working remotely!