THE Covid pandemic has altered global lifestyles in myriad ways. The one change that is set to become an enduring element of the employment process is the system of working from home. Work-from-home (WFH) has now become integral to the functioning of nearly all companies, both in India and abroad. It has taken root not just in information technology and digital economy entities but even in those that are involved in manufacturing, construction and all kinds of industrial operations. There is no getting away from workers actually being present at factories or construction sites or those in service sectors needing to interact face to face with customers. But all other activities that can be carried out remotely are being done from home-based locations.
As a media professional, my own forays to studios have been replaced by Skype calls from the comfort of my home. It mirrors the situation in most middle-class households where working-age people are operating out of their homes rather than taking the daily two/three-hour commute to their offices. Now that the second Covid wave seems to be on the way out, the question being increasingly asked is whether this is going to become a permanent way or life. Or will physical presence in office return to being the norm as in the past?
The answer to the question is complex right now. Many companies are planning a phased return to physical presence in offices, while others are content to continue with the existing WFH system for a longer period. Some IT companies, for instance TCS, have already declared that 75 per cent of their workforce will be working from home over the next five years. Even brick-and-mortar companies like Pepsico and Unilever are planning to have at least a third of their employees working remotely over the next few years. It is clear that ultimately, there will be a hybrid model with some percentage of employees being allowed to work from home while others return to offices. It could also be that employees come to offices a few times a week rather than every day. Every company is trying to work out a formula that works effectively and ensures maximum productivity.
But this is not likely to be a seamless process. The reason being that WFH does not suit all employees. In fact, a study by global services company JLL found that as many as 82 per cent of employees missed the interactions of working in an office. The reasons are multifarious. One is that residences are cramped and working among family and associates can be tiring and distracting. The other is that the interaction among colleagues is vital to spur innovation and creativity. Plus, the learning process from seniors and peers is much quicker when meeting in a physical office atmosphere rather than on interminable Zoom calls. The third is the fact that WFH ultimately blurs the lines between office and home, so there is no sense of relaxation or turning one’s back on work. Office hours seem to be climbing as working remotely turns out to be an endless, tedious process with employers feeling entitled to call on subordinates at any time of day or night.
Which brings one to the issue of mental health that is burgeoning among those working remotely. There are reports of psychiatrists finding a rise in persons seeking help for mental stress issues on this account. A study by the Milan-based staffing firm GI Group has found that 48 per cent of those surveyed felt Covid-19 had an impact on their mental wellness, though few had taken any steps to deal with the issue. The other related factor is that unlike normal times, the respite from work through socialising or other activities is not available, creating a hemmed in feeling for employees. Corporates now need to think seriously about providing support to workers facing mental health issues owing to the trying environment created by WFH.
Having said that, it is undeniable that Covid has led to the creation of a whole new type of work environment that is set to revolutionise the world. Job availability, for instance, is no longer limited to the location of potential employees. Qualified persons living in smaller towns and cities can end up taking jobs that would have earlier gone to those located in larger metros, the usual site of corporate offices. Women will also benefit significantly. The perennial dilemma facing educated, skilled women over whether to stay at home as the primary children’s caregiver or opt for a full-fledged career can be resolved finally with the WFH option. In the years to come, this could lead to a massive increase in the numbers of women in the workforce. As it is, female labour force participation has been declining alarmingly in recent years. The possibilities of working remotely are likely to bring back many qualified women back into the workforce.
WFH is a boon for the disabled as well. Those who can work efficiently from a single location but are daunted by the physical obstacles in commuting to distant office locations, can be employed without any hindrance.
Job flexibility has equally assumed new dimensions. WFH has given options to those looking for a change, simply because hiring is not limited to those within the same region. Potential employees do not even have to be located in the same country and the prospect of a workforce scattered around the globe has now become a reality.
WFH has created a brave new world of opportunities for those who have the skills and are not able to reach the physical office spaces in the usual crowded office hubs. It may not be the solution for everyone as most workplaces will continue to have the bulk of employees carrying out operations in the usual way. But it holds out hope that those who could not aspire to work in the normal way due to movement constraints will now have options before them. No doubt there are shortcomings in WFH which need to be ironed out. Yet the system of working from remote locations, created since the outbreak of the pandemic last year, is certainly a desirable and welcome revolution in the existing traditional job environment.
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