Does working from home work?

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By Tensing Rodrigues

One of the most significant impacts of the COVID-19 disruption has been on the jobs. The work scene has changed beyond recognition and with little clues as to what lies ahead. The workers were locked out of the workplaces overnight. Whether that was right or wrong is not the issue. What is important is the fact that it happened with a suddenness that left everyone disoriented.  What next? was the question that stared at everyone on that sultry morning; and what came flying in the face next was the work from home (WFH).

Many companies had adopted that model before March 2020, but that was for well thought out reasons. It worked where both the company and the employee saw a win-win situation in it. But the WFH model that sprang up in the fading days of March 2020 was no model; it was a knee-jerk reaction to try to hold water in a jar that was already smashed; each one tried to salvage whatever could be salvaged.

As the days progressed the situation only worsened as the futility of the exercise became more and more obvious. The only saving grace was the fact that this futile exercise had to continue for only 21 days. But then the lockdown was extended.

Now that we are out of the lockdown by and large it is time to revisit the issue. Again,  not to do a post-mortem; that is neither necessary nor useful. WFH needs to be more than a panic reaction. We need to explore the possibility of making it a part of the work style, if we may call it so. We need to do a cost- benefit analysis of a model which comprises of onsite or office work and WFH. 

If many companies had found WFH profitable years before March 2020, then there would surely be some good in it. It will not suit all types of work; it may not work for all companies. But that is exactly what needs to be explored; which companies can gain from it, and to what extent; and what groundwork it calls for. It has to be a well-considered decision. You may find it an odd example: Lijjat has been operating on the WFH model since its inception!

There could be two pre-requisites for adopting a model that includes WFH. I say ‘includes’ not ‘based on’ because the employee needs an outing too. The first is a suitable infrastructure. Working from a kitchen platform or from under a mango tree (for getting a better connectivity) can be an emergency solution but these cannot be your permanent workplaces. If the work involves telephonic conversations the employee needs isolation from ambient sounds. One cannot spice a sales talk with baby cries.

An office-like infrastructure is what is needed. Sometimes the work may not be purely inputting or processing data, coding or telephonic discussions. The work may require specialized tools; say, if the work involves testing/verification/evaluation of electronic devices, some basic tools like a good multimeter or soldering station or AC/DC convertor may be required which do not cost more than a few thousands.  The employer or the employee will have to invest in this equipment.  That is why I said cost-benefit analysis needs to be done to decide whether to go for WFH or

not.

The second is re-skilling. In an office or lab the employees may be working as a team; they pool their expertise. When they work from home, they have to become ‘generalists’ – understand a little of everything, so that they can get the job done. Alternatively they have to get into a ‘sharing mode’ – share the designs, diagrams, drawings online; which requires them to learn the technology that enables a distributed workplace. The company has to then invest in such technology. Some work requires specialized software. Often such software sits on a company laptop or PC. Distributed workplace requires that it becomes accessible to all the concerned employees.

Working from home is not all about work. When the dividing line between the home and the workplace gets blurred both can suffer. And that is what happened in the last six months. So it is important to redraw the map. Sometime in the midst of the lockdown 2 remember seeing a cartoon that drove home the point quite well, though it looked rather hyperbolic. The wife says to the husband, “This work from home is becoming too much. First you brought home the files; then you brought home the office PC; now you have brought home the secretary.”

*The author is an investment consultant. Readers can send their comments and queries to [email protected]