Transition to ‘work from home’ may pay off

Narendra Pani | Updated on March 25, 2020 Published on March 25, 2020

Savings in travel time and reduction in traffic congestion, pollution and fuel consumption are immediate benefits

In the fear, bordering on panic, in our cities around the novel caronavirus it easy to forget that this too will pass. Despite its staggering toll there will be life, even urban life, after this pandemic. This could create a longing for a return to the normal. But a once-in-a-century pandemic does not leave things just as they are. Even the more insensitive leadership may be prompted to take a closer look at the condition of our urban health infrastructure. A more resourceful leadership would look to turn this adversity into opportunity.

The scale of these opportunities would vary depending on the existing abilities of a country. China has undoubtedly been the point of origin for the initial spread of the disease, but they have been quick to turn that deadly record into a vantage point. Now that the rates of infection in that country appear to have tapered off, they have rapidly begun to use that experience to influence global thinking about the coronavirus. Experimental treatments made by Chinese doctors are being tried out on a larger scale elsewhere in the world. President Trump too has mixed his talk of China’s virus with terming something experimented within China — the use of an anti-malarial drug as treatment — as a game-changer.

India’s response

There is also the possibility that as the Chinese economy recovers from the impact of the virus, production systems in the developed world would still be affected by the virus. This could well offer China the possibility of regaining market share in the developed world.

India may not be able to respond in quite the same way. Apart from the huge gap in economic capabilities between the two most populous countries in the world, there is the fact that our exposure to the disease is coming when China may well be past it. Rather than having global ambitions we may be better off keeping our focus within the country. And some of the practices that are being put in place to fight the virus could well have a longer-lasting impact. The practice of washing our hands frequently could reduce our susceptibility to other diseases as well.

Tapping the more significant opportunities in the current adversity would require greater and more original thinking. This is arguably most striking in what the experience of dealing with the coronavirus can do to our cities. Social distancing has forced companies and even governments to explore the option of working from home.

This has had an immediate effect on many of the problems of congestion, particularly traffic. The commute to work constitutes a major part of traffic in Indian cities on days other than the weekend. Working from home will contribute to a reduction in fuel consumption and pollution. Within the workplace too there will be the benefit of those working from home saving on the time they take to come to office. This would be particularly significant in India’s metropolises where scant attention has been paid to the task of reducing the distance between work and home.

A substantial shift to work from home would, however, not be easy. There are aspects of work that require face-to-face interactions. An email, or even a telephonic conversation, does not always capture the nuances of what is sought to be conveyed. The atmosphere of a discussion with other members of a group in office could also help generate new ideas. The benefits of group thinking are not restricted to an aggregate of ideas that each member has worked out on her own. Thus even if there is a shift towards work from home, it cannot be a complete migration to the new rules. What can be attempted would be working from home for a part of the time, say, a few days in a week.

Even this limited transition to work from home would call for larger changes in our work culture. The focus of both the workers and their bosses would have to shift from the time spent in the office to the final output. Specific tasks would have to be specified for the period of work from home. These tasks would ideally be that part of the job that is best done by the individual working alone. There would also have to be effective monitoring systems to ensure that work from home does not lead to a fall in accountability.

These changes in work culture do appear formidable, especially when considered in the abstract. Once they are put in place, though, the benefits could become more evident. Companies may just be able to tap the savings in travel time of their employees, as well as the decline in time spent on gossip. If this works for even a few companies, the very dark cloud of Covid-19, may just have a thin silver lining.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on March 25, 2020

A letter from the Editor

Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.