Is remote-working here to stay?

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The COVID-19 situation has forced many organizations to shut down operations completely and ask their employees to leave or take a pay cut. Others have implemented “work from home” to maintain business as usual. The coronavirus is the first pandemic to have impacted so adversely after the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which resulted in the death of 50 million people around the world. 

There is a lot of negativity around us in such a situation, but trying to sound optimistic is not unnatural here. Infact, one good thing about the pandemic today (in comparison to the pandemic in 1918) is that medical systems are way better (antibiotics were still not invented in 1918). In addition, transportation is not solely dependent on railways and steamships and work for many can be done with the help of the internet. The latter has a bigger impact than we realise and it is certainly an advantage of living in the digital era. 

According to a study conducted by a team of economists from the University of Chicago, 37% of jobs in the US could be performed from home. In comparison to this number, only about 4.7 million (3.4% of the US population) is actually working from home. This is a figure of February 2020 or just before the pandemic took shape. In another study conducted by the economists of Norway, almost a similar figure came up and it estimated that 36% of work can be realistically done from home. 

It is obvious that in countries with higher population of blue collared workers and a dependence on manual field-based or machinery based work, the percentage will be lower. However, the growth figure of 44% in the US remote working population in the last five years (before the arrival of the coronavirus) suggests that a big change is underway across the whole world. The coronavirus has actually given a push to all organizations who had never thought of going remote or were sitting on the fence about the decision. Big software and IT outsourcing companies in India and worldwide, who had earlier refrained from allowing work from home, have been forced to consider this as the only option to survive in the face of a world crisis. 

While remote working has become a necessity in the current situation, several companies had “chosen” a remote operation structure even in the pre-pandemic era. Some of the reasons why remote working is good from the business perspective are:

  1. Companies no longer have to depend on availability of localised talents in the region of their operation
  1. Companies will not have to convince or compensate employees to relocate or change geographies
  1. Zonal poaching or headhunting of employees reduces significantly as skill sets can be sourced from around the world. Eg: If company A in the semiconductor sector requires a VLSI designer, they no longer have to look at only the 20 designers working in the 4 other semiconductor companies in the same city. 
  1. Even from a retention perspective, remote working provides a good amount of flexibility for the employees. According to the 2019 Workplace Survey conducted by Staples, 67% of employees would consider leaving their jobs “if their work arrangements became less flexible”.

While companies have seen many benefits of moving to or maintaining a remote work structure, employees also feel that remote working provides a flexibility that was missing earlier. According to the International Workplace Group (IWG) survey, 80% of respondents voted in favour of a job offer that offered flexible working as compared to a similar job that didn’t offer the same. 

Productivity is often sighted as a major concern for employers that are considering a move into the remote working model. How can one measure the productive hours an employee actually gives, if there is no formal structure to monitor them? However, the same survey (IWG) presented an amazing result when 85% of supervisors said that flexible working has actually enhanced the productivity of their businesses by several folds. 

Employees working remotely have also been found to be taking fewer sick leaves. They also waste zero time traveling and a lot of office politics and grapevines are kept at bay. Then why is it that some erstwhile (pre-pandemic) office-goers have expressed nostalgia and a claim that they miss their workplace?

Some of the employees who are used to working in a formal setup such as an office miss the opportunity to network with their colleagues. This networking is often over-the cubicle, on tea breaks, coffee connects or lunch outings. On a more serious note, the “chance-meets” which allow a different kind of networking is unlikelier to happen over the internet. After all, no one “bumps into” someone on instant messenger to find out about an upcoming role in a different project. 

Does this mean, the companies which operate on a remote working model, has no element of personal connect with employees? That can’t be true. Some of the renowned tech companies that are successfully operating remotely since their inception are : Automattic, Gitlab, Zapier, Toggl, Aha! These companies have phenomenal employee friendly policies such as unlimited vacations, competitive salary, profit sharing, annual offsites etc. These attract the best talents from across the world. As far as “meeting” or “networking” is concerned, we must remember that people are homebound now only because of the virus. Once the pandemic is over for good, remote workers need not work from home. There are many cafes or shared work stations where employees plug in and can connect with others after work. They may or may not be from the same company. Isn’t that amazing? Some of the companies mentioned above, also pay for the coffee or for setting up a “home-office”. 

In India, software giant TCS came up with the 25-25 model according to which only 25% of the workforce need to connect from offices by 2025. This means that the remaining 75% of its 4.5 lakhs employees can connect remotely. Other organizations such as Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Microsoft too expressed explicit interest to shift to a remote working setup for an indefinite period. 

Another extremely important benefit that remote working promotes is the reduction of waste and environmental pollution. When a majority of the workforce is not required to sit in offices, food, utility resources, electricity, carbon emissions, solid wastes and traffic on road significantly come down.  According to a Gallup report, in the year 2015, remote workers of Xerox drove 92 million miles less, which reduced the carbon emissions by 41000 metric tons. Millennials are the future workforce. Therefore, companies must give a serious thought to environmental concerns to woo the value systems of the new generation. 

Industry experts have strongly opined that remote working is the future and why should it not be? Given the pros, it would be foolish for businesses not to adapt to the new system. Certainly not all companies can operate remotely and not all jobs can be done away from the source. How can a farmer be away from his field? How can a doctor operate from his home? Maybe, robotics will make these possible too. Then the question of loss of employment will come up. Till then, let’s take one step at a time. Questions will pop up but so will answers. 

Featured Image Credits: Luke Peters on Unsplash

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