Will work-from-home come to stay?

Will work-from-home come to stay?
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Will work-from-home come to stay?

Highlights

There is a lot of deliberation among human resource developers, chief executive officers and corporate consultants on the long-term viability of the switch to the work-from-home mode compelled by the Covid fallout across the spectrum of businesses.

There is a lot of deliberation among human resource developers, chief executive officers and corporate consultants on the long-term viability of the switch to the work-from-home mode compelled by the Covid fallout across the spectrum of businesses.

The initial convergence between employers and employees on that was traceable to the fear of loss of business for the company and the fear of lay-off in the workforce. Subsequently, the changed methodology drew the attention of the business establishments to the promise of cost-effectiveness that seemed to be on the horizon, with the employee also seeing in the new practice a certain freedom from the daily hassles of 'preparing,' 'travelling' and 'going' to office. Add to that the flexibility of working hours reducing the boredom of the fixed routine.

This, however, has proved to be a transient advantage for both sides as the evaluation of productivity that determined profitability ran into question marks. The corporate body could take the one-time spend of fixing a work station at the house of the employee in the stride – it was in any case nothing more than making a laptop and a mobile phone available to the employee – but the triple challenge of keeping up monitoring and supervision, ensuring team spirit through remote communications, and maintaining the required level of efficiency of work, seemed to be turning formidable for the leadership.

A theoretical construct that work-from-home away from the din of the corporate headquarters allowed for better concentration and hence a better output per unit of time has proved to be just a deduction, as a sense of casualness and complacence developing among many workers negated this logic.

The shift to work-from-home came more easily to IT- based companies, but it complemented the rise of digitisation and online communication and consultations generally, which had the effect of upgrading the systems of supply chain, production and delivery. Products and services, however, both faced greater pressure of quality control as the customers – impatient with physical restrictions imposed by the pandemic – demanded total satisfaction on the first brush with that supplier and tended to write off that source if the quality was flawed.

That online retail businesses have generally grown speaks of the healthy competition for quality that they willingly faced in their endeavour to retain the edge.

A second advance – apart from the issue of quality – is the reaffirmation of the principle of modern business that said that the 'individual was at the centre of all productivity.' Human resource managers have to realise the new-found importance of up-skilling and reskilling to get the best results out of the existing workforce.

The availability of seniors online at odd hours is as important as the summoning of the employee for a task outside of the fixed hours. Covid has reinforced the Indian theory of 'paternal nurtural management' which unlike the Western capitalist thought, calls for an empathetic boss-subordinate relationship even beyond the workplace. In fact, it is the performance evaluation of 'seniors' by the corporate apex that has to become stringent – in the light of these new yardsticks of judgement applying to them.

Both in the US and India, the hybrid model that combines physically attending office and working from home has been made functional in a long-term perspective, but for the senior levels of the organisation, being at the corporate headquarters is becoming a necessity – again in the interest of successful policy and strategy formulation.

In-person deliberations have no substitute as far as macro planning is concerned – board meetings do not serve their purpose in a virtual format. The evolving practice would favour return of the leaders to the head office with a certain number of supporting personnel being also present there in person.

This has to go with a planned mix of other employees in 'shifts' working from office or home in the best interest of productivity. In view of the additional mutants of the Corona virus appearing in some parts of the world, there is no getting away from a very strict compliance with Covid appropriate behaviours, including masking, social distancing and hand sanitisation, in the foreseeable future. This adds to the viability of work-from-home as a long-term corporate strategy.

A significant outcome of the Covid crisis is the adoption of some of these hybrid practices also by the government and the delineation they have caused – to the betterment of performance all round – between the decision takers or policy makers and the workforce that primarily implements those directions.

Ministries of Health, Infrastructure Development and Home got, in the process, their senior bureaucrats to handle governance at the micro levels too, to ensure execution of policies, which is a welcome development – even as the middle and lower segments of employees continue working under the appropriate hybrid mode. In the Narendra Modi regime, this flowed from the top and that is why amid the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, healthcare management, vaccination and economic revival could be met with promptness and efficacy.

Covid called for disaster management with the Centre being the national authority for handling it, and a valuable outcome of that has been a steady move forward towards cooperative federalism in spite of the historical legacy of political conflict developing between the Centre and the States on almost all policy issues. This is a precious gain that has to be preserved for the future.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)

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