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WFH won’t work for all roles; challenges include trust deficit and unreasonable demands of productivity

The Covid-19 pandemic made working from home (WFH) or remote working the “new normal.” All over the planet, organisations directed their staff to work remotely, wherever feasible. As a result, what used to be an exclusive feature of employee benefits (WFH facility available for select employees — applicable with riders) is routine today. Even though telecommuting, is not a new practice many people believe that this will remain the common way of working even after the pandemic is over. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: WFH is good for both companies and workers — companies save the cost of office space and other overheads; employees save commuting time, gain more flexibility, and work with increased efficiency.

Nicholas Bloom and others published a research study in 2015 proving that productivity and work satisfaction actually went up when employees opt for WFH. So, is this what “future of work” will look like? Is it really a win-win scenario? Should we be worried?

Even a cursory look at the available research evidence, surveys, reports, and expert opinions on WHF of the last few years will tell us to act carefully before we unequivocally endorse this phenomenon. We need to be convinced about some issues before we can voice our strong support for the universal adoption of WFH in a sustained way.

Blurred roles

Let us point out the concerns from the employee’s perspective. A WFH arrangement, whether voluntary or involuntary, may seem convenient, liberating, and even exciting initially because of the obvious advantages it offers. However, we have enough research evidence from different parts of the world that indicate that if continued for the long term, WFH can lead to extremely long and extended work hours resulting in ‘normative pressure’ and work-related stress.

Time engaged in work eventually spills over or encroaches into personal, social, and family time — causing ‘work-life-conflict’ and a resulting loss in performance. Researchers used terms like “intensified work” or “blurred role” while referring to a typical remote worker’s quandary. Let us accept it — the physical environment of an office is very important for most of us to maintain a routine, avoid distractions, focus on our role, and deliver results. It is also proven that people work more productively when surrounded by productive co-workers or team mates. Even for most seasoned professionals, being consistently productive while working remotely is perhaps an unreasonable demand.

Reports indicated that employees got anxious about the professional and social isolation, becoming “invisible” to their superiors (and colleagues), and being forgotten for promotions! Many people don’t accept that sustained WFH can be an ideal option for their career progression. We also have studies to indicate that there is a high possibility of a “gender-divide” being present in this context, as women professionals with family responsibilities find WFH more demanding and challenging to balance with household and childcare responsibilities, as compared to men. This problem can get even more amplified particularly in a traditionally patriarchal society like India.

Lack of preparedness for WFH

From the perspective of management or organisation, as the employer decides about the features of the WFH home option wherever applicable, what are the concerns they are faced with? To start with, it is not feasible to shift all roles to WFH mode effectively, even for industries like IT/ITES, consulting/advisory services, and BFSI — that are more amenable to remote working features. In April 2020, a widely reported study revealed that 99.8 per cent of workers in the Indian IT industry were not capable of working from home.

Most organisations do not have the resources, infrastructures, and processes in place to facilitate effective WFH policy for the entire workforce. Not to forget, there are considerable data security-related concerns too.

Even when implemented, the major casualty of a sustained and WFH policy is organisational culture. Any sensible professional aware of the importance of work culture for performance also knows that it is nearly impossible to develop, maintain, and nurture a strong organisational culture where a majority of employees work remotely. Not surprisingly, there are serious question-marks about the impact of WFH on organisational communication, teamwork, collaboration, conflict resolution, and integration.

Communication loss

How will the superiors monitor and review their subordinates’ performance and provide feedback on a real-time basis? Yes, there are technology-based solutions but over-relying on them can evoke negative reactions and loss of performance. Performance management being at the core of people management, it would be difficult for employers to take effective decisions on staffing, employee development, reward and recognition, and employee engagement. Consequently, retention practices would be significantly affected. Isolated case studies showing organisations did not see any loss of productivity exists. But honestly, can we extrapolate those narratives for organisations across industry, size, type, and multiple other characteristics?

Adequate evidence points towards a trust deficit among managers towards remote workers. Many are not trained enough to manage and control work distantly. Without sufficient conviction and inherent perceptual gap about the reliability and accountability of the staff, how can remote working be entirely effective?

- Prof. Diganta Chakrabarti, Associate Professor – Human Resources

*Views expressed are personal.