Given the COVID related lockdowns across the world, several organizations are shut-down, operating with barebones staff, or flexi-work arrangements. The COVID situation must make us reflect on finding new ways of working and achieving superior work-related outcomes using alternative methods of working. Therefore, one starts to wonder what will be the future of work. And, how will such lockdowns impact performance outcomes of the organizations?
The concept of the modern office structure is less than 300 years old. In the modern era, the British Navy and East India Company are known to be first organizations to construct buildings that would be used primarily as a place of work. The Old Admiralty (Ripley Building) constructed in 1726 is considered to be the first office building. Due to isomorphism, these structures were replicated across the globe and thereby became a norm for doing work. More recently, Japanese organizations have developed a new design of office and arrangements to escalate productivity, improve coordination, and augment the accountability of the workforce. Contemporary organizations have also been promoting remote-work opportunities. Such work opportunities are termed as telecommuting. Telecommuting involves working with mobile communication and computing devices to accomplish work from home or another location distinct from the traditional office.
Research published in Forbes magazine in 2017 mentioned that organizations in the US lose $1.8 trillion a year in productivity in traditional office set-up due to employee fatigue from the commute, office gossip, and health issues. Therefore, telecommuting for at least a few days a week is being mandated by several organizations and governments across many North American and European countries. Nearly 60 percent of organizations in the US are offering remote-work opportunities to their staff. A report prepared in 2016 by OECD Directorate of Employment, Labour, and Social Welfare indicates that nearly 60% of the workforce in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden has an opportunity to choose flexible work options. A notable study conducted by Prof. Nicholas Bloom from Stanford, published in the Harvard Business Review in 2014, revealed that telecommuters are happier, lesser likely to quit, and significantly more productive than their counterparts who come to the office every day.
Given that telecommuting offers such great benefits and has been adopted by several organizations across multiple countries, why has it still not become the norm? Reasons are provided in a study conducted by Prof. Dheeraj Sharma and his colleagues published in New Technology, Work, and Environment Journal in 2012. The study found that telecommuting reduced work pressure and role conflict, as well as augmented autonomy. However, telecommuting was unfavorable because it could result in role ambiguity and reduced support and feedback. Hence, for telecommuting to benefit organizations, senior management must ensure great role clarity through proper job descriptions, structures, and feedback mechanisms. Thus, over the last decade, most organizations in North America and Europe are benefiting considerably from telecommuting as they have developed well-defined job descriptions, flexible and manageable structures, and real-time feedback loops.
India has a long way to go before reaching the milestones accomplished by several North American and European countries. Only a tiny percentage of the workforce engages in telecommuting in India. Even in IT companies that offer telecommuting as an option, employees are generally unwilling to avail themselves of this opportunity. In a recent study conducted by Prof. Dheeraj Sharma on telecommuting in India, he found that impression management concerns and the fear of missing out are two major reasons as to why employees do not avail telecommuting.
The time has come for us to strategically re-orient our working styles. The current COVID situation is an opportunity to review our working style and work-life balance. In a WhatsApp survey conducted by the IIM Rohtak research team, it was found that 92% of the population feels that their environmental conditions have improved due to lockdown. People report cleaner air, lesser noise, and better sanitation. Plausibly, I believe that all NSE/BSE listed organizations, schools, and government organizations must mandate at least one day a week of work from home. I am confident that these measures will not only improve the quality of life for the citizens of India but will also result in significant productivity gains for our nation.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.