Proficient in my pyjamas?

Is telecommuting as idyllic as many people think it to be? We examine both sides of the debate

Last month, Yahoo! Inc. announced it will roll back its work-from-home policy starting June, and stirred a proverbial hornet’s nest. The memo stated:“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings..."

In a matter of hours after the news broke in late February, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with comments like “Unbelievable. Stupid. Grasping", and “such a step back for women. Ugh". But there were also nods from the likes of billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who congratulated Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer on Twitter on doing “a great job".

The memo by Yahoo! has opened up a debate on whether work-from-home is an utopian idea or an actionable solution in the Internet age.

The ‘I’ in teamwork

The suitability of work-from-home for any extended period of time depends on the industry and the employee’s job profile. There are some things that simply cannot be done from home. A job in team management is one such, says Tulika Tripathi, managing director of executive search firm Michael Page (India), Mumbai. Tripathi says the work-from-home phenomena is more prevalent in industries such as consulting and technology, where the work hours are long and travel schedules can sometimes be gruelling, and where employees may be required to work across time zones.

Do teams really suffer when employees don’t come in to office every day?

Vijay Bharadwaj, vice-president of human resources at Dell India in Bangalore, does not think so. According to him, 18,000 Dell employees across 35 countries are currently working away from its offices. “Dell believes that this flexibility (to work from home) enables its team members to realize their personal objectives in a manner that can positively impact their careers," he says.

Adrian Williams, head—human resources at Thomas Cook India, Mumbai, agrees. The traditional view of working from an office is a “misnomer", Williams says, because advances in technology today mean that the physical presence of an employee in office is not mandatory. He adds: “Especially in a service industry like ours, given increasing consumer demands on the one hand and strong competitor forces on the other, the policy has helped us attract and retain talent."

The productivity debate

Define parameters: Veena Srikanth says you must set boundaries if you work from home. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

The average employee in metros such as Bangalore and Mumbai spends 3-4 hours commuting to and back from work, says Nitin Vyakaranam, founder and chief executive officer of personal financial services company ArthaYantra, Hyderabad. “Even if we leave out the economic impact (fuel cost) and physical tiredness, an employee would waste approximately 46 days in a year just travelling to work."

Work-from-home, on the other hand, can have its own attendant snags—these could range from distractions created by children and lack of self-discipline to poor communication and understanding among team members who rarely come into direct contact with each other.

Sanjeev Dixit, chief people officer, Allied Blenders & Distillers Pvt. Ltd (ABD), Mumbai, says: “Generally, work-from-home does not remain work-from-home. There are distractions in the form of children, your spouse…". Most young employees, Dixit says, are actually keen to come into office. “The social and developmental need is high on their agenda. Gen Y is aggressive, and wants to do a lot in a very short time. Their personal objectives (from work) include gaining exposure and learning, in addition to fulfilling their materialistic needs."

Some things are possible only in office. Developmental needs such as cross-functional interactions and mentoring by seniors in the organization, says Dixit, can only be achieved by making that “everyday investment of time and energy" to come to office.

As for maintaining a work-life balance, Dixit says there are several ways to achieve that. ABD, for example, rearranges the 14 public holidays it gives in a year to fall on Fridays or Mondays so employees can enjoy long weekends.

Trust deficit

Mayer reportedly discovered work-from-home Yahoo! employees were slacking through the VPN, or virtual private network, which maintains a unique footprint for each employee who logs into the company’s servers remotely. It’s a good measure of the number of hours work-from-home employees are clocking.

It may be a somewhat dangerous argument to measure output by the number of hours one is seen to be working, but it is a powerful one. One reason why work-from-home has not gained as much traction in India, explains Tripathi, is because working late and staying back in office beyond the stipulated hours is often perceived as being indicative of greater commitment to work by senior management.

“The concept does put to test the trust between the manager and the employee," says Subramanian Suryanarayanan, national head—human resources, Tata AIG General Insurance Co. Ltd, Mumbai. Tata AIG General extends its work-from-home policy to “employees with a key skill set wanting to work from home due to personal challenges for a definite period of time, (and in cases of) medical emergencies, (and) extension of maternity leave beyond the stipulated time", he says. The onus, according to Suryanarayanan, falls squarely on the employee in such cases to show “significant commitment...to ensure that he/she is able to contribute the maximum to office work while at home".

Vyakaranam has a different take on this. “At the end of the day, the KPIs (key performance indicators) tell their own story. So if you want to adopt work-from-home seriously, first go back to the drawing board and build a robust and objective performance monitoring framework that throws out daily KPIs."

By Chanpreet Khurana

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On the job: Paarul Chand says working from home means you can never miss a deadline. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

Yes, working from home isn’t a day-long, chilled-out affair spent in your pyjamas, which is what Yahoo!’s recent move seems to imply. While the reasoning about the potential flow of ideas has several takers, there has been outrage over the claim that working from home affects productivity.

Bangalore-based Manmeet Singh, 35, a software programmer with a leading multinational technology firm who opted for a work-from-home arrangement six years ago after his daughter was born, argues: “Productivity from home is much better. One, you don’t waste time negotiating traffic to get to work. Also, we are much more social at the workplace compared to many other countries. Yet, there is a perception that when you work from home, you are not really working."

An opinion that Delhi-based Paarul Chand, 41, content developer for various companies, feels one has to battle constantly. “You have to work extra hard to overcome the perception that you are having this gala time at home," she says. “You cannot call in sick, you cannot have a personal crisis, and you can’t miss a deadline."

Chand was forced to explore work-from-home options after she was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an ear disorder, which makes it hard for her to take long commutes, or use lifts and escalators. “Last October, two of my clients were in the middle of a massive product launch and I had a health relapse," recalls Chand. “I did the work mostly out of bed, with a lot of family support. Working from home may sound like a dream job, but it can get to you."

Barring a few companies—most of them multinational corporations—India Inc, on the whole, has been slow to offer this option. “In general, companies are not very comfortable with letting people work from home," says Mumbai-based K. Sudarshan, managing partner of global executive search firm EMA Partners International. “If you look at Silicon Valley itself, the culture is to congregate once a week and brainstorm. But here, if you want to have a town hall, or have an impromptu brainstorm, it is hard to do that in a work-from-home arrangement. My organization, which is into executive search, is not very encouraging of people who want this option. You end up compromising on face time. Companies are selective as well."

Nita Joshi, the Mumbai-based director of executive search firm K&J Search Consultants, says companies offer this option only if they “see a financial advantage or want to position themselves as one with progressive policies", and adds that “it may not always be easy to actually get it".

There is no denying that working from home, in an Indian scenario, comes with many challenges. The biggest, perhaps, is keeping the boundaries between the personal and professional intact. Bangalore-based Monika Manchanda, 41, who quit the IT industry a year ago to start a baking business, adds: “When you leave office, you swipe out your card and switch off. When you work from home, it spills into your ‘me’ time and takes over your life. In office, you have the whole infrastructure and you just have to plug in and work. Here, you have to create your own infrastructure so the degree of commitment is much higher."

Singh still has vivid memories of trying to work from home when his daughter was an infant. “When I would shut myself in a room on a work call, she would sit outside and howl," he remembers. “That would put huge emotional pressure. When you are in office, you don’t see all this. When you work from home, you also work late nights, or during hours when you would otherwise be free. It does take a toll."

Equally persistent are intrusions from friends and family. “People, your family, to begin with, think you are on a perpetual holiday," says Delhi-based communications consultant Anu Singh Choudhary, 34. “Your parents and in-laws will expect you to visit often. You will have friends asking you to join them for a movie or shopping, only because ‘you work from home’."

“There was a ladies’ morning in my colony," recalls Bangalore-based freelance software professional Veena Srikanth, 41. “When I told them I was working from home, they said, ‘You could have come for 2 hours.’ I said I have a deadline. You have to set the boundaries. For instance, my kids are not allowed to use my laptop because I have made it clear that it is my work laptop."

Perhaps hardest to get used to, is the isolation and lack of visibility that comes with working on your own. “You don’t get as much visibility in the organization when you work from home," feels Singh. “You can use different mechanisms to address that—speak to people more often, and ensure your work is seen. But managers do prefer people who are seen more often, although I am fortunate to be in an organization which is much more open."

“Working from home can dehumanize you to a large extent and isolate you from the rest of your working environment," adds Chand. “You can end up being just a voice on the phone. I make an effort to connect, to remember birthdays, because that’s what one would do normally."

Some organizations make a conscious effort to ensure work-from-home employees stay connected. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), for instance, does not have a formal policy on work-from-home, but has guidelines in place if the need for such an arrangement should arise. Meera Sanyal, its country executive, India, says: “Our policies... focuses on people... also on places. So this is not about everyone working from home each day and not seeing their teams but it is about empowering everyone working at RBS with the ability to work from virtually anywhere. This is only possible if there is an underlying culture that’s supportive and encouraging of flexible working."

The Yahoo! CEO’s move seems to imply that those working from home are largely goofing off. No one denies the possibility of misuse. “I have seen people going for a movie during the hours they are supposed to be working from home," says Srikanth. “You have to be sincere and committed. The office has to know you are there."

“There are days when personal commitments get in the way," says Singh. “As long as you are able to deliver, organizations should understand. But that comes with experience."

There is growing concern that Yahoo!’s move could spark off similar measures in India, which could force talented people, especially women, to drop out of the workforce. Coming at a time when remote-working technology is becoming more advanced, will Yahoo!’s move be a throwback to the Dark Ages? Only time will tell.

By Shai Venkatraman

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