Let this be a year of weaning away from offices
This new year, 2021, does not look all that new, after all. It does not seem to come with the same sense of excitement and positive anticipation as new years usually do. Humbled by a horrible virus and dazed by the devastation it wreaked, the mightiest of nations and best of people are yet to recover from the deep despair of Covid-19. Amidst frequent lockdowns and the constant mutations of the virus, the much-awaited vaccine is greeted more with fear than hope.
During such times, we are likely to miss the less obvious lessons of the pandemic and ignore the mega trends it has engendered. One such mega trend is ‘work from home’ (WFH) or, more widely, ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) . Nine months after our sudden and unplanned experiment with non-office-based work, we now have both hindsight and insight on this. All surveys are pointing to people’s clear preference for WFH. Most research is pointing to employees reporting greater satisfaction and productivity during WFH. Many large employers like Facebook, Google, Twitter, TCS, RPG Group, etc., have announced their support for remote work either fully or partially.
The number of employees permanently working remotely worldwide is set to double in 2021, according to a new survey by a US technology research firm. It would be a pity if we miss this unmistakable global trend and continue our craving for socialising in offices and confuse proximity with productivity. Yes, 300 years of addiction to commuting to ‘office’ does cause withdrawal symptoms when we don’t get enough of it. But the answer is not building more offices; rather, it is finding creative ways to build a robust ecosystem to make remote work successful. Consider the following three levers to make this happen in 2021.
Access to broadband internet: There is good news here. India’s internet connections doubled in the last four years and crossed the 750 million mark by August 2020. Further, 560 million of the users have broadband access. This augurs well and complements our digital India aspirations. However, we have a long way to go in terms of penetration, reliability and universal access. In 2021, we must take significant steps to bridge the digital divide and address the asymmetries of access. Affordable smartphones and mobile broadband for both work and learning have to be a priority.
We should encourage local manufacturing of low-cost handheld devices. This will unleash the tethered rural population who are forced to migrate to big cities to work. White-collar migration is completely avoidable. Mindset change: Physical offices are often an addiction. We go there because we are habituated. We go there not just to work, but to socialise, gossip, network, exercise (think of the office gyms), play, nap and of course eat. Julian Birkinshaw and other researchers (HBR, August 2020) found that not going to offices helped knowledge workers focus on what matters. During this lockdown, they spent 12% less time in meetings and 9% more with customers.
More and more work in future will be knowledge work and research is clearly showing that offices are a distraction. We should de-addict people from going to office consciously in 2021. This requires a mindset change among employers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. They must seriously evaluate the savings on real estate and the associated maintenance costs, and set up personal examples of working from anywhere. Yes, an occasional visit to the pub is not an addiction. Similarly, periodic visits to repurposed offices for social interaction and serendipity are fun.
Both experience and evidence seem to suggest that homes and staycations can be as productive as offices. Let 2021 be a year of weaning away from offices. Reskilling for the future of work: We must not assume that we know how to work remotely. It does not come naturally. We need to learn it. Our recent tryst with WFH was an emergency response to a public health crisis. We have merely mimicked the routines of a normal 9 to 7 office schedule on Zoom calls. This reminds us of ventilators—essential for rescue but bad to continue.
We must reskill ourselves to get proficient at working from anywhere. Productive remote work is not just a matter of wifi routers and collaborative tools. The “remote manifesto” by GitLab, the world’s largest all-remote company, can be very useful. Its emphasis on asynchronous communication and measuring results over hours is instructive. Leading remote teams and especially blended phygital teams (part in office, part on a video call) will require entirely new skills. It is not the same as breathing down the neck and watching people under your nose—literally!
Let’s make 2021 a year for remote work. In this new year, we must take WFH out of the ventilators of old habits and ready our lungs for working from anywhere. I am making a new year resolution for 2021: “I will not do anything in-person that can be done remotely.” Will you?
Practice Professor (OB & Strategic Human Capital) at the Indian School of Business
(The author is also Executive Director of the Human Capital and Leadership Initiative (HC &LI) at ISB. Views expressed are personal)