Work From Home: Is This The New Normal?
The future of work in a post-COVID world is a seamless blend of work, life, video calls and Netflix in your living room.
Organizations all over the world are going through a major shift in their way of working, wherein most of the employees are working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. This enforced work from home experience is proof that the present arrangements are a feasible option for many businesses. So much so, companies such as Google, Facebook and Tata Consultancy Services have asked most of their employees to continue working from home, for as long as till the end of the year. Others are working towards identifying job roles that absolutely require a physical presence in the office and those that can be fulfilled remotely.
And it isn’t just the businesses that have warmed up to the idea of remote working. Employees too, after being given the luxury to work from the comfort of their homes, are not too keen about being back in the office. And businesses, to stay competitive, need to offer the option of remote working to their new recruits. Along with the higher levels of productivity, organizations can benefit from the reduced costs.
Although the benefits of remote working have been discussed for many years now, many of you must have been working from home for the first time. Before the coronavirus pandemic, most companies had been hesitant in implementing work from home, mostly due to apathy and anarchaic thought processes. But as the realities of the financial challenges set in, the remote working trend might speed up. With employees working from their homes, companies may try to get rid of the extra real estate to get some liquidity to meet the expenses. Commercial real estate is already in a free fall.
The situation we’re in is fast changing the way we operate, work and communicate with one another. The coronavirus pandemic has been the driving factor for giving companies and employees a big shove to switch to remote work, and that could have the effect of transforming our society.
Despite all of the distractions at home, working remotely might be equally beneficial for employers and employees. There have been experiments where it was found that mixing work life and home life can actually boost employee morale and in turn, their productivity.
Many however, especially parents, are coming to realize that working from home can lead to a very hectic mix of work and family life. Speaking to friends and colleagues I’ve learnt people now are working longer days. And although the homeschooling and online classes of children won’t keep happening forever, team leaders and managers may grow accustomed to having the employees always available to them, at their beck and call. Some are continuing to work through the weekends too and may forget to hit the stop button on that when the kids are back in their schools and the ‘regular’ work schedule resumes. It looks like the days of signing out at the end of the day and doing other things are gone, maybe even for good.
Of course, not all employees will have the option to keep working from home permanently. In fact, in India there are numerous jobs that cannot be fulfilled from home. For such workers, who cannot enjoy the luxury of remote work, a more challenging reality lies ahead in the immediate future. And with all the lockdown and travel restrictions, the job market scenario is going to be very tight. This could also mean while companies could choose to offer their employees an option to work remotely, they may not necessarily feel the need to. Even if employees feel much safer and satisfied working from home, not having to risk themselves by traveling in public transportation and sharing an office space, as a result of fewer job openings, companies may instead go with recruits who wouldn’t mind coming into the office.
The lines between our professional and personal lives are bound to stay blurred even after employees have to start emerging out of their homes and coming into offices. They will most likely be asked to be present on alternate days and in staggered shifts, to ensure proper social-distancing protocols. Human resources will have to take on more responsibilities to monitor the health lives of the workforce. To reduce the risk of infections, temperature checks at entry points, enforcing wearing of masks and sanitization of touch points. Companies may even want to step up the monitoring of interactions among employees. Much like the AarogyaSetu app developed by NIC to track the spread of infections among the Indian population, PWC plans to launch a contact tracing app for organizations. Employees can install these on their phones and notify the user if they’d come in contact with someone at the office who has tested positive for coronavirus.
Maybe the most difficult thing about this transition to remote working is not going to be micromanaging bosses, but the physical absence of colleagues. For job roles that need a lot of collaboration and real-time feedback, video calls won’t be able to provide the same sort of motivation. There are many I know of, who are working from home for the very first time and they do not want to keep working this way. Many of them have started to feel lonely, never having to leave the house and that is something that is scary for them. But for the introverts, this sounds like a dream come true. There is a chance the future of work could mean limited commuting, no small talk and very scarce in-person communication and interaction – a perfect scenario for those who are more than happy to stay in their pyjamas and work on their laptops, with a dog on their lap. But it is certainly going to be challenging for those from whom the office is a place for social interaction, or a networking space to move up the corporate ladder.
Organizations are already realizing the excesses of their former ways of working, with too much emphasis on in-person interactions. Many of those meetings and client visits could really have been just a phone call or email. The conference you last went to could have been a PDF document or a slide deck that you just went through on your computer. As companies start to see their workforce can achieve so much with just a laptop and good internet, the travel industry is sure to stay crimped.
The future of work will have much fewer corporate offsites, parties and conferences. The people most likely to succeed in such a situation are going to be the ones who can deliver value without much in-person interaction with colleagues. So, if you are someone whose primary job skill is being charismatic and networking, you need to figure out a way to be equally charismatic in a virtual setting or actually start working.
(Prassenjit Lahiri is the Director of Social Friendly, a consulting firm working out of Southeast Asia. Views expressed in the article are his own.)