Best of both worlds

Tags: Opinion

Companies would do better if they, instead of taking work from home “or” work from office decision, consider the “and” option, which is to have a mix of both

The recent brouhaha over Yahoo's ban on work from home has been a bewildering experience for most. For many among us work from home is an urban legend: we have heard of it, but not really experienced it. Unless, of course, if one has been fortunate enough to work in the information technology industry, where tele-presence or work from home is not that rare a concept. But for the rest, it is still an elusive scenario.

Now, if the question was posed to you: “what would you prefer, work from home or work from office?”, you may instinctively choose to work from home. And if I asked why this is a preferred choice, you may have responded 'it's convenient'. If I further probe on what those conveniences are, you may say saving time on commute, more productivity, more time for family and how you could use the saved time for hobbies and leisure activities and develop your overall acumen. Yes, you would be technically correct, as all the above factors are more or less true in the Indian context where most people on an average spend about 90 minutes a day travelling to and from offices. At the same time, Indian companies consider the above reasons as causes for distraction.

Our social culture norms recommend one-on-one meetings and interaction on every day basis; our staunch belief is that an employee under our roof is more productive. It is really a conundrum when proponents of telecommuting point to numerous western studies showing that people who work from home are more productive than other workers on an average and that telecommuting cuts down on traffic during peak hours; reduces companies’ real estate costs and improves employee morale, leading to less attrition.

Ten per cent of American workers spend at least one day a week clocking in from home, according to government data. The percentage of people working exclusively from home climbed to 6.6 per cent of in 2010, from 4.8 per cent in 1997 in USA. But here in India, few years back, a co-founder of a leading IT company remarked, “Our assets walk out of the door each evening. We have to make sure that they come back the next morning.”

I am sure he did not insinuate that our talent should be locked in the office so as to get the maximum productivity. As evident, this visionary had identified the importance of retaining talent and engaging his biggest resources - his employees. Many leaders today resonate his concerns, working hard towards keeping their employees engaged, happy and not necessarily at their desk.

Employers these days know that employee engagement is no longer restricted to the office space. Growing insights into the human psyche and with the changing needs of the workforce, an exploration of alternate work styles has become necessary.

An urgent need to cater to individual differences had led to an initial alarm not just among the employer, but also among the employees. Each one fearing the risk of exploring freedom, with few strings attached. A realisation of lowering stress and attaining maximum work productivity, based on satisfaction, has taken precedence over sole profit generation. Issues of work-life balance and workplace well being have become buzz words.

Today, more and more employers do realise the benefits of working from home can be favourable for their company and employees. The key challenge is determining which employees are disciplined enough to handle this freedom, and how often you should allow an employee to work from home. A Stanford study found that the rate at which home-based workers were promoted dropped by 50 per cent, seeming to confirm the cliché “out of sight, out of mind”. That is not only bad for employees who are passed over, but it is also bad for employers because they might be wasting the talents of potentially great managers.

Another negative effect — hard to measure but an article of faith among entrepreneurs and some executives — is the missed breakthrough encounters between employees at the office that lead to new products or strategies. Some companies, like Bank of America, have recently changed their policies to force workers to go into the office more often, perhaps to make sure they do not become too disconnected from their colleagues.

Most people in India would say that in many jobs there is no clear distinction between home and office. Thanks to cellphones and wireless connections, it is possible to be tethered to office and expected to respond to work calls and email messages every waking hour. The doyens of IT industry, who have made this always-connected world possible, should be the first to realise that the workplace of the future will not be easy to define.

What best suits your job profile should not be judged by you but by the organisation and industry that employs you. Many a time, instead of work from home “or” work from office decision, it may be better to consider the “and” option, which is to have a mix of both. Decisions should ideally be based on the process needs of the organisation. The industry and the customers define the decisions.

All organisations need some employees in the office at all times, else not much would have been spent in catering to the comfort needs of the employees. A continuing battle is ‘when is it a good time to let go of the employee and test the security in their relation with the organisation?’ Again, matters of trust and faith remain most critical in the Indian context. Smartness lies in understanding that physical spaces cannot contain thoughts and efforts!

And hence an employee, in his/her defined office cubicle or in the comforts of his/her home may remain equally dedicated and productive. People report of feeling less stressed, lot happier and more productive while working from home. Also, the rate of absenteeism, attrition and issues of recruitment are more manageable. When implemented properly, employees’ view working from home as a reward for their hard work, and continue to work hard for their company – whether they are in the office or their home offices.

As we know, for many knowledge workers, working virtually is already a fact, whether they happen to be working from home, in the office, or elsewhere. We are all dealing with networks of information technology and data streams that connect us both within office buildings and across time zones. We all have been shifting to lighter, more mobile devices and platforms that allow us to connect in multiple ways from varied of settings. These capabilities certainly call into question the logic of being there in an office full-time anyways. They even call into question the very logic of office space and furniture. What is a desk for when you can find everything you need on a tablet?

In fact, technology is suggesting that we can redesign our very building types and social spaces. Technology workers themselves have already done this to some extent, by creating shared places for work, learning, and communal activities. With businesses already moving to cloud, already providing information for individual contributors on the go.

Let’s celebrate our existing workplaces where we work closely together, innovate, and share ideas. But let’s also acknowledge that technology is enabling us to re-imagine our living and working lives in a much broader, more sustainable, and more valuable sense. The way we live and work is already a creative, blended, hybrid 24-hour mash-up. Now our institutions, industries and even buildings and cities should be redesigned to follow suit.

(The writer is senior VP, human resource & leadership academy, Angel Broking)

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