18 Mar 2020 17:38 IST

Remote work in a post-corona world

Without trust, self discipline and integrity, work from home will not get mainstreamed

Will the coronavirus show us a better way to work? One where organisations use resources judiciously — no wasteful travel for meetings that can be done virtually, work from home arrangements for larger chunks of staff, thereby cutting the need for large office spaces and more focus on office hygiene?

All over the world, as organisations declare work from home (WFH) for their employees during the pandemic, many are predicting that these arrangements will become permanent. The very fact that WFH has become an accepted abbreviation shows the mainstreaming of the arrangement.

Many feel that technological advancements — cheaper video conferencing tools, free collaboration and attendance apps — will accelerate the speed of WFH.

But many of these tools have been around for a while. If you examine the reason why all these years WFH has not seeped into organisation cultures, the greatest barriers have been lack of trust on the part of companies, and unwillingness to adopt collaboration tools by employees.

Trust issues

Let’s admit it — organisations do not trust their employees to be doing committed work when at home. Remember, Yahoo retreated from remote work because it felt employees needed face time together (and also because of moonlighting fears). Management mindset has typically been that workers will goof off if working from home or, worse, do gigs for rivals.

On the other hand, they cannot be wholly blamed because remember the number of times companies have held workshops on Slack, Zoom and other remote working collaborative tools, and employees have been disinterested?

However, these are extraordinary times and nobody has any choice, so WFH is in place. But will trust grow in a post-corona world? Will management be able to change its mindset? Will the workforce give up its abhorrence to new tools? Will new productivity measures that look at outcomes and not output be brought in?

Behavioural changes

Massive behavioural shifts and changes in hiring need to take place for new ways of working to get adopted. Theoretically, everyone knows that remote working offers temporal and geographical flexibility — employees can work in the middle of the night, from any city — and, without the bane of meetings, can increase productivity.

A study by Harvard Business School associate professor Prithwiraj Choudhary ‘Geographical Flexibility and Productivity Effects at the United States Patent Office’ did show that when patent examiners worked from home, productivity went up. However, the study also cautioned that work from home was not for everyone. Not every role can be done from home, and also not every worker has the characteristics or traits to be effective working from home.

Self discipline, self motivation, and integrity are traits that are needed to be effective remote workers. This means while recruiting, hiring managers will have to pay more attention to these qualities.

Having worked from home for many years, my thoughts on the subject are that remote working is more effective if you also do a stint in office, so that you understand the rhythms and patterns of the organisation. It is also more effective if companies take care to involve you in their informal engagement activities — team lunches and offsites. Often, the remote worker faces an out of sight, out of mind problem and, even when wanting to chip in more, does not know how to — the solution could be a light, supervisory chit-chat, or a gossipy call once in a while to keep engagement high and ideas flowing.

Not everyone wants it

Just because WFH is found to be effective during a crisis, one should not make a strong case for it to be a permanent practice. There are all kinds of workers — some who enjoy coming to office as they find the infrastructure far more conducive, and others who long for contact and company and don’t like working in isolation.

While even those heavily dependent on office spaces, collaboration and supervision are finding a way to be productive from home during these extra-ordinary times, it’s a bit unrealistic to think all workers will be model remote-office citizens at all times. During a crisis, a spirit of commitment pervades that may not necessarily be there during business-as-usual times.

Also, white collar workers in certain industries could possibly work from home, but for blue collar workers this is not an option. They may not want it either as there is a certain prestige and pride involved in going to office.

To conclude, WFH will certainly gain currency in a post-Covid-19 world, and face-to-face meetings will be less important, but don’t set unrealistic expectations and goals based on this. Trust is key — how we build and earn it will determine the adoption of remote working as a way of life.