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Transition to ‘work from home’ may pay off

Narendra Pani | Updated 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

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