The second wave of Covid had compelled India Inc to switch to the work-from-home (WfH) model. And just when return-to-office was gathering pace, the Omicron variant has struck, prompting businesses to reduce or completely stop business travel/team gatherings and get back to the WfH model.

Notwithstanding its benign effects, WfH in most cases is viewed as a temporary fix. Defining WfH as “home-based teleworking as a temporary alternative working arrangement”, the ILO estimated around 18 per cent of workers worldwide were engaged in occupations suitable for WfH with requisite infrastructure. While professionals in corporate offices may well work remotely, those working in plants, warehouses, supply chains, or hospitality, etc., need perforce be physically present.

Terming remote work an “aberration”, Wall Street heavyweights such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase are counted among the most ardent supporters of the status quo ante. For many, prolonged work from home — glued to laptop, missing the buzz of the office and spontaneous interactions with colleagues— tends to create stress; serendipitous camaraderie generally created by an impromptu meet-and-greet tea/coffee breaks or lunch or a hallway conversation is crucial.

No warmth, energy

Meetings on Zoom or Teams can’t provide energy, warmth and understanding that physical get-togethers do. Recreating social connectivity, a crucial ingredient that enables people to be collaboratively productive, is not easy in virtual and hybrid settings. Like children in school, workers in office really develop amidst an environment of relationships, creativity, curiosity and questioning.

Steve Jobs, after the launch of iPad, talked of Apple’s DNA, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing”.

In contrast, many technology CEOs fret that strict return-to-office mandates will put off restless software engineers, warn that employees will jump ship if rules are too restrictive. A growing trend indicates employees wanting more choices on when and where they work from. While most are keen to attend office, especially for collaborative work, they want flexible and fewer workdays. Even though lockdowns were lifted after the initial pandemic peak, organisations could not return to all old ways of working. Employer expectations appeared in line with the seismic shift in the way employees thought about their workplace.

The pandemic having disproportionately impacted women in terms of increased unemployment as also domestic responsibilities, WfH would potentially help them. Cramped by limited personal space, and stressed by frequent switching identities from a professional to a mother, a wife, or daughter-in-law, some mid-career women employees found the work-life balance blurred.

But the flexibility of location and work schedules would indeed attract more women. The trend is endorsed by the recruitment firm TeamLease reporting a 25-37 per cent increase in the number of women applying for jobs, getting employed across sectors such as IT, e-commerce, healthcare, retail, knowledge process outsourcing and pharma.

Businesses are in a flux; ever new challenges create new models, unknown in their reach and impact. As Peter Drucker often maintained, an organisation needed to evolve strategy that enables it to derive results in an uncertain environment, corporates are re-imagining the new future of work, to be future-ready. Today, the fusion of business and technology unfolds immense new possibilities; collaborative virtual workspaces are becoming a new normal; and companies are embracing hybridisation as never before.

As Paul McDonald of consulting firm Robert Half anticipates, employers will be more open to flexible work formats, including combining time at the office and working from home, workers having the flexibility of working from home and going to office occasionally for team planning, capability building, and social connect.

The writer is a former Managing Director, Container Corporation of India