Making WFH work

As a concept, work from home (WFH) has been in existence for a long time but companies seem to have suddenly discovered its almost-magical powers. The truth is they have no option but to embrace WFH because of Covid-19, and they are only making a virtue out of necessity.

A Human Resources consultant says it is like a lady suddenly discovering many good qualities in her husband after several years of marriage. Such discovery can happen only when there is an exceptional event in their lives. The consultant says his clients include many manufacturing giants for whom WFH is just a good theory on paper.

A leading information technology player has gone overboard by spelling out a 25/25 mantra, saying the company needs only 25 per cent of the workforce to be present in the office to ensure 100 per cent productivity and wants to have such a remote working model by 2025. That’s a tall order indeed.

It is true that 80 per cent of India’s Information Technology workforce is working from home at present but this can happen only for a limited period of time. The short point is that getting super-excited about WFH is not the way to go. Consider the feedback from employees from all over the world, including some of your colleagues. The initial romanticism over WFH is slowly waning. More than a month of WFH experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.

According to data from virtual private network service provider NordVPN Teams, employees in the United States have logged on for an additional three hours per day compared to patterns seen before mid-March — a 40 per cent jump. In most countries in Europe, the working day has extended by an average of two hours.

The extension of working hours will certainly not be any different in India. Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect. As a consequence, that dream of “quality time” and work-life balance has gone out of the window. It’s been beautifully captured in a cartoon which shows the wife telling her husband: “Maybe, you should work from someone else’s home”.

Many companies that have been publicly supporting WFH as a long-term solution, privately say that allowing employees to work from home is decreasing communication and collaboration among co-workers and might constrain the informal learning that typically happens in the office.

Despite these reservations, there is no denying that WFH is here to stay even if to a limited extent, and companies have to find ways to make it work better. On top of the to-do list will have to be a change in the mindset. Employers who allow employees to work remotely should grant them true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their remote work. On the immediate priority list should be identification of the type of work. If a job is very independent — that is, the employee can carry out most job duties with little or no coordination with co-workers, the transition to WFH is more likely to work better.

WFH also involves virtual teams —an organisational structure where the traditional HR models or paradigms are irrelevant. The reason is simple: Conventional organisational hierarchies have no meaning in a team where the members would rarely meet face-to-face. So companies have to figure out how such teams can function seamlessly without a sense of isolation as this may lead people to feel that they are left out, not getting enough information or not being told the true story of what is going on. That is why many companies have developed a regular Meet-the-People programme which is attended by every virtual team member.

There are many other to-dos. Virtual teams can be a challenge to manage as one needs to create a corporate culture remotely. So relentless communication is the key. Team leaders have to sacrifice a little bit of their me-time and engage with individual team members much more. After all, technology is a good enabler to connect people but only strong relationships make people feel connected.

Remote workers should also find ways to disengage from work at a time when the boundaries between work and home life are no longer clear. WFH should not become work 24x7.

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