No going back to the way we worked

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on July 06, 2021

Tech and software services companies appear much more relaxed about WFH.   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Are we approaching the beginning of the pandemic’s end or the end of the beginning? It wouldn’t be wise to lay bets either way but it’s time to think ahead as the vaccination pace accelerates and companies are able to buy jabs for their employees. It’s almost a truism to say the world will be a different place when, if ever, we can step out safely again. But we have hardly begun to grasp just how different it will be.

Will people return to work or keep working from home or will it be a mix? If they continue working from home, what will happen to city centres and support services: restaurants, shops and even transportation companies in the software sector? Conversely, what will happen in multi-storey buildings if everyone returns to work and many are reluctant to enter crowded elevators?

Let’s get a couple of things straight first. Work From Home or WFH isn’t going away. It will be the norm in many companies but there are others, like the financial sector, where there’s deep-seated opposition to it. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon set the tone by declaring: “For a business like ours, which is in an innovative, collaborative, apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not the new normal.”

He isn’t the only top banker who’s viscerally anti-WFH. Jamie Dimon, long-time chief of JP Morgan Chase has also moved firmly to squelch ideas about the banking world permanently shifting into WFH-mode. He stresses young executives can’t learn via screen-time with their bosses, and says: “Most professionals learn their job through the apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in the Zoom world.” Furthermore, he asserts WFH could “dramatically undermine the character and culture (of the company)”. He also insists Zoom calls lead to slow decision-making.

The thumbs-down from two of the industry’s top honchos is bound to impact financial-sector employees even in India so they may have to start commuting once the pandemic eases.

By contrast, tech and software services companies appear much more relaxed about WFH. When the pandemic began, the software services moved swiftly to ensure employees had secure lines and other facilities to WFH and ensure international clients didn’t have reason to grumble. Infosys Chief Operating Officer UB Pravin Rao said last year that he had been to his office only twice in eight months after the lockdown began, something he admitted he’d never thought would be possible. Tata Sons Chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran maintains TCS expects only 25 per cent of its staff to be working from office by 2025.

Chandrasekaran says there’s a big upside to WFH and that more flexibility will be particularly good for women who often have to balance their working lives with looking after children and homes. He also expects to be developing satellite offices where people can check in without travelling too far from home. The tech industry is also looking at the idea of recruiting staffers from smaller towns who might never step into the main office. Still, Chandrasekaran notes many employees are keen to return to office. Also, says Pareekh Jain, founder of Pareekh Consulting, a key issue will be what clients want. The last 20 months, though, have taught that WFH isn’t an impossibility and Zoom calls can effectively replace many face-to-face encounters (goodbye travel budgets). In many industries, the expected norm now is employees will check in physically three or four days a week at the very most.

Simultaneously, it’s recognised some employees may have small children or tiny apartments that make WFH impossible. Inevitably, much thought is going into what the office of the future will look like.

The library model

One option is called the ‘library’ model where people may not have a fixed desk but can come and work from offices that also have meeting rooms where groups of employees can bounce ideas and thrash out knotty issues. Incidentally, Dimon acknowledged chatting at the coffee machine wasn’t slacking off but an important part of office culture.

Each industry will change, but in its own way. We all know the image of the pharmaceutical industry salesman, trudging from one GP’s clinic to another and, occasionally, even sneaking in ahead of patients. As doctors began seeing their patients online, it became only too obvious that pharma salesman could easily interact with doctors via Zoom. After all, it’s almost certain that most doctors will continue seeing many patients online and waiting rooms will be less crowded.

What do workers want? International surveys suggest employees have become pretty enamoured of WFH. One survey by Flexjobs showed 65 per cent wanted to continue WFH and another 58 per cent said they would look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to work from home. Thirty-three per cent wanted a hybrid arrangement. Just 2 per cent wanted to return full-time to the office. The commute was cited as the key factor why they didn’t want to return to office. A majority — 55 per cent — of workers said their productivity had increased at home while another 33 per cent said it was no different from when they’d been in office. Inevitably, poor connectivity is a problem globally.

Some executives in India grumble their companies automatically assume they’re slacking if they are at home and load them with more tasks than they would have had if they’d been in office. A survey by co-working company Awfis Space Solutions found employees wanted to return to office but also wanted flexibility — which points towards a hybrid model for the future.

Says Awfis CEO Amit Ramani: “People feel their careers have slowed down. Also, their work-life balance has taken a toss.” Echoing Dimon, Ramani adds WFH decision-making can be slower than if people are all in one room simultaneously. Also, newcomers are also having hard time learning the ropes and company culture. Adds Pareekh Jain: “There’s burnout because there’s no boundary between home and office. You don’t see people looking fresh when they come to office on Mondays.”

And, let’s face it, until the pandemic, our social lives were built around the offices where we spent most of our days. That’s where we made most of our friends because that’s the way modern urban society has been constructed. One consultant suggests to build closer bonds, offices should engage virtually and even hold parties online. Anyone who’s already tried online get-togethers will testify they’re a poor substitute for the real thing. WFH has disrupted our way of forming office bonds and so if working patterns continue to be home-bound, we’ll have to find new ways to keep alive existing ties and forge fresh ones.

Published on July 06, 2021

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