From the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke at the start of 2020, people have been speculating about whether working from home will be the new normal. Even at the time of SARS in the late 1990s, there wasn’t such a fuss about how and where people worked from. Everyone just assumed that after the epidemic and quarantine-induced break people would return to the office just as before. That’s exactly what happened then. Why is working from home versus returning to the office such a big issue now?
The other big issue currently, especially in the US and UK, is the great resignation. People are not returning to work. Period. They are turning down job offers and many have even quit their jobs if media reports are to be believed, perhaps citing a preference for working from home. In the process, businesses are having a hard time finding the right people and this is also leading to higher wages, aggravating inflation that is already at record levels. Initially, it was thought that Covid-19 and inadequate childcare were the main factors behind people resigning or not taking up new jobs. However, it appears that there were also many people who, having experienced working from home, now prefer that option and would like to stay with it.
The Economist wrote at the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, that with all the cost savings – especially on office space and travel costs – that would accrue to companies, WFH would indeed be the new normal. And McKinsey has been writing about The Great Resignation or The Great Attrition, saying that there would be a kind of hybrid working model, which is what most of the world is gravitating towards at least for now. I was always of the opinion that once the pandemic is truly gone or its presence is negligible, people would return to the office and I said so in my Owl Wisdom Podcast. And that, if anything, WFH on a few days a week, would become the new perquisite of senior management.
Whichever side of the debate you are on, it is worth looking at why people always worked together from an office in the first place. From the days of modern business, people have assembled to work together in factories, workshops and offices. The reason, I think, is because business itself was a novel idea and bosses felt that people needed to work together out of a single workspace in order to discuss, share and practice teamwork in its real sense of the word, and that they also needed to cohere around a single work ethic and idea. After all, what else is a company or a firm? It is a set of people engaged in together producing a product or service that the company earns its revenue and profit from. And it is a contractual agreement between employer and employee to adhere to certain rules and principles of work, based on which the employee is remunerated.
The advantages of working together in an office space are many. And not all of them can be achieved to the same extent, or replicated, with Zoom connecting people at their homes.
- One is the company or organization ideal that people sign up to, when they join to work for it. It’s hard enough building a work culture. That sense of purpose and belonging is virtually impossible to create and maintain remotely, especially with thousands of employees.
- Then the interaction and coordination between not just line managers and staff, but between departments in an office is best achieved through walking up to the person’s room or desk and chatting about it, or calling a meeting if it requires consultation.
- The camaraderie and common sense of purpose that builds up between employees working together for some length of time is near impossible to achieve through video-conferencing
- Developing a sense of discipline and respect for colleagues comes from working together in an office, where you are also seeing other people at work.
- Treating all employees as equally valuable to the organization, whether you have a corner office or you work in the factory
- Developing and safeguarding expertise of any kind, while also producing products and services, requires continuous consultation and teamwork. This is how companies develop their competitive edge and the office is the best place for it.
- Teamwork and consultation with other stakeholders such as suppliers, dealers, vendors, investors and consumers are also best done out of an office.
- The office becomes a formal symbol of everything the company represents; a video-conference can never achieve that same sense of common purpose and belonging.
This is how we have always worked, right? What have Covid-19 and technology done to make us reassess our working arrangements? The nature of the pandemic was such that it required social distancing, which is what forced many people to work from home. However, let us also remember that many people could not afford to work from home; their jobs required them to show up at their factories and workshops. These were mostly in manufacturing and essential services.
Then, those of us who could work from home did so, only because technology was the great connector. It allowed us to stay connected with colleagues and work, and except for certain service industries such as hospitality and travel that were completely shut down, many kinds of jobs continued to be performed thanks to technology. In fact, it has been widely reported that digitization and adoption of tech was further accelerated during the two years of the pandemic.
If these describe work during the pandemic, then we must accept that these were an aberration. Everybody understands that it was in unusual and unprecedented circumstances that we were forced to work in this fashion; why should we now assume that henceforth this is the new way to work? And if we do continue down this WFH path as the new way to work, then we are also creating further divisions and classes of employees within an organization, with different rules and working arrangements for different kinds of work. Over time, this would tear the social fabric of a company, causing unrest and dissatisfaction at the workplace.
There are many who argue for WFH on grounds of it being better for managing climate change. Less commuting and a smaller carbon footprint are what WFH delivers. I am not sure that is a strong enough argument for everyone to adopt WFH. So let us look at what other advantages WFH offers:
- Huge cost-savings for companies and businesses in real estate space and travel costs
- Less time spent commuting to work and less pollution as a result
- Flexibility to work in your own time, however you decide
- Might be useful for young mothers who don’t have access to childcare
- Better work-life balance
If we look at the benefits of working from home, they suit employers more than they benefit employees, and that too on cost savings. Are those cost-savings enough to outweigh all the advantages of working together that I mentioned earlier, many of which are to do with organization cohesion and work culture? And are those considerations also compelling enough to offset the irreparable damage done to small businesses that depended on office-goers, such as cafes, restaurants and shops in downtown office areas, as is reported to have happened in many US cities. And what about the remuneration issues to do with WFH? Surely, the contractual agreement will have to be rethought, and so should the employee compensation package.
I think WFH might work for a certain kind of worker, mostly freelancers and consultants. And for them, the remuneration package is also pared down to help the company save on costs such as annual employee benefits. In India at least, that is the case from my own experience in the advertising and brand communications industry, where I have worked mostly as a full-time employee in management.
When discussing freelance and consulting work, the subject of the gig economy cannot be ignored. It is freelancing on an industry-wide scale, and is usually associated with the new internet-based economy, whether it is ride-hailing, food delivery or e-commerce. As I have written before, this is already the subject of much controversy and debate in the US, where these workers are classified as service providers and are entitled to no work-related benefits, nor do they enjoy any job security or career-development. Unlike consulting assignments in the advertising and brand communications industry in India where the consultant is expected to work only for the company hiring him or her, the gig worker is free to moonlight. There are some who argue for the freedom of the gig worker saying that it is work that the person is taking up in addition to his/her main day job and that it helps supplement his/her income.
To me, it seems that the internet-based economy that depends on such gig workers is exploiting the labour force, not adding to human capital. This is yet another of today’s socio-economic ills that we have to find ways to remedy soon. I can see that in a large country like India, where large numbers of youth are unemployed, the gig economy will become the quick and easy path to generating employment. However, these people can hardly be called fully, or gainfully employed and they deserve better.
As far as my own experience is concerned, I have been working from home in Goa for the past 16 years, only out of duress, because I have been out of work. Most of my work is for my blog and brings me no income; I am inventing work for myself so that I stay in touch with my craft (of thinking and writing on brands) and putting down my thoughts and ideas on brands in the hope that I will be able to put them into action some day in future. Given a choice, I would always opt for returning to the office on a full-time assignment, though it will have to be one that I am keen on pursuing and after adequate discussion with me. I think that is because I am an organization person at the core, and have always put the company’s interests first.
That said, I am surprised at how much I have been able to develop and strengthen my own capabilities in strategic thinking, writing and designing, all of my own accord and initiative. During my long and active career in advertising and brand communications with several advertising agencies in India, I always knew that strategic thinking and writing were my strengths, but it is only now – and thanks to technology – that I am also doing some designing work for my blog as well as on brand campaigns that I create and share on my blog. I must emphasise, though, that I am not a designer.
Whether WFH or working from the office becomes the dominant mode of work depends on companies and their leadership. Media reports are all about what people want, especially millennials, but I think the onus is really on corporate leaders to think hard and long-term about what kind of organisations and workplaces they want to build for the future. Not merely where they can cut costs now. It is also for the sake of a thriving urban economy, where small and large businesses can both grow alongside, that we need to return to the office soon.
Why would we want to continue to live and work in a Covid-struck world?