Remote Working: Boon Or Bane

Seamless delivery through remote working has become the New Normal across the world, a win-win situation for all, given the current restrictions. The employers get to alleviate the economic effect by keeping the revenues flowing while the employees have a job, hence income, unaffected by the pandemic. This is true across a broad spectrum of non-essential white-collared services, best represented by the IT sector.

Geographically diverse teams in IT companies have always relied on this model and have implemented it in measured doses. Employees have had some flexibility in hours which allowed them to manage commitments at home like childcare. The expectation was always on having the ability to be present in office, if required, at short notice. There was also an unconscious bias towards people who showed reluctance to come to office and it was equated to reduced productivity and lack of commitment.

The current situation forced everyone to move into a fully remote working model, unless there were legal obstacles. The logistics and security reasons were mostly ironed out in the first few weeks, to enable the smooth running of the show.

Now with the model proven, companies are realizing the potential cost savings that could be achieved due to reduced infrastructure, if implemented on a permanent basis. For the society in general, it has many positive indications like less travel so consequently less pollution etc.

Twitter and Facebook have already offered their staff the option to work remotely on a permanent basis and expect a vast majority to take up this offer. TCS has announced it plans to retain this model, with only 25% of the workforce in office at any given time to achieve 100% productivity. They are proving to be the industry bellwethers and others will follow suit.

On the surface, this looks like a great move. The companies benefit on reduced infrastructure cost, being able to tap into a previously location constrained talent pool and savings from reduced salaries.

Overall people may move out of cities to more peaceful towns. Property prices and associated services will be negatively affected in large cities, especially like Bengaluru, which are heavily reliant on IT, as money will move to smaller cities. The overcrowded city resources may breathe a sigh of relief.

However, let’s keep these side-effects aside and focus on what will be the consequences for the employees, if done on a permanent basis.

The first thing that springs to mind is people will have a great work-life balance.

Ok, can we take a quick poll please? Let me guess, the result will be a resounding NO. Most people are currently struggling to cope at home, what with increased house work and mental fatigue. Those living alone and leading a virtual life now, are desperate to go back to having in-person interactions and this cannot be just with family.

Men feel overloaded with responsibilities from being available for house work and child care, they did not even realise existed. Women, however, are currently doing a “double-double shift”[1], as perfectly said by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. She says, women who work full-time usually do a double shift as they do office work and are also responsible for housework and childcare. Now they have to take up homeschooling and caring for the sick and the elderly. She has asked employers to step in and help. Even with kids back in school and the pandemic over, the constant “double shift”, with no physical and mental respite, will slowly break them. They will never be able to switch out of either home or office.

Now consider if both you and your partner work from home permanently? First, do you have the physical space and environment needed for it? Secondly, will you be able to clearly compartmentalise work and home or end up doing more of both? Men will struggle but let’s be honest, with the woman being at home the demands on her will be endless. The expectation to spare 15 minutes to cook a quick lunch/serve meal/make tea etc will exist. In case they fail, the taunts of being incapable of planning your day will follow. The accepted social norm is, you cannot disturb a man if he is working but the same does not hold true for a woman.

The second benefit could be that people can move to cheaper destinations and save. This may be true to some extent, as cost of living will also be less, at least initially.

However, the fat salaries will be replaced by more realistic numbers, suitable to the location you pick. Mark Zuckerberg was upfront that the salaries will be adjusted to the cost of living of the place you chose and if found lying, the consequences will be severe. Consequently, your purchasing power may reduce, compared to your city peers. Combined with rising prices in towns due to increased demand, the expected savings will nosedive.The quality of associated services like education and medical facilities may vary too. Along with this the availability of a larger talent pool will drive down current salaries.

Finally, the greatest benefit maybe opening up opportunities for a location-constrained talent pool. It would help people find jobs without leaving their hometowns. It may reduce the daily flow of thousands to the already congested cities. The opportunity of being able to work and earn while being able to fulfil family responsibilities and location constraints will be a blessing for some people. It may even trigger a move back to a loose model of joint family. The aging parents will be happy to have their kids and grandkids around.

However, what of building an independent family unit, away from meddling relatives? What of the dreams of the young students, finally moving to work in a large city? They may experience financial and physical freedom, for the first time. The exposure gives them confidence, builds their character and expands their friend list too. So, not everyone will be amenable to this model.

Moreover, will complete remote working not lead to increased social segregation? The work place is a great equalizer and I personally believe it’s the one place where we are forced to meet a diverse crowd, who we have not inherently chosen due to our similarities. To work efficiently we have to suppress our unconscious bias and listen to various viewpoints, professionally and sometimes personally, especially over a cup of coffee or watercooler chatter. It broadens our minds horizon.

While this may adversely affect everyone, again women will be the worst hit. It may result in some of them being further pushed into a controlled and isolated environment under the guise of having financial independence. They may never be able to step outside the confines of their house to meet other people, to get exposure to other worlds or alternative views, away from prying eyes and ears.

The list of pros and cons with their effects are many. Overall, it may prove to be a positive move, if everyone works towards a system with the right checks and balances in place.

The employees will need to prioritise their needs. They will have to manage the social front and set some expectations and boundaries at home. This may even result in a few changes to their current social fabric itself.

However, the onus of providing structure and support, would lie on the employer too. They would have to ensure the system considers the requests of each person regarding location, and not blindly force people. Easy access to support could be made available, as people don’t have the benefit of asking colleagues casually or seeing the distress or worry on somebody’s face and offering to help. The culture of openness or unscripted meetings could replace the benefits of in-person chats too. I am sure there are enough experts to guide them.

Ultimately it will be a boon for some and a bane for others but if we aim to make it a boon for the majority and inclusive of the needs for the minority, then it is a model worth fighting for.

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