Several companies have taken the call to have their employees work from home and there are videos and documents circulating on how work from home could be made more productive and effective.
Work from home has always evoked mixed emotions. There are those who believe it is a euphemism for a paid holiday, and there are others who believe that in today’s age and time there could be nothing more unproductive than a commute to work. Most of urban India spends some two hours commuting. This is nearly a quarter of the time they spend at work. Cutting out two hours of daily commute is not something to be sniffed at.
The truth is somewhere in between and it is a good idea to revisit the idea of “work" itself.
Work in an office set up comes in five forms. The first is work performed in solitude. This could be email communication, providing inputs for others or creating some kind of outputs to be shared with others. Other forms of work include conference calls with distributed teams, quick stand-up meetings, reviews and white-boarding, and problem solving sessions involving five to 10 individuals.
The first two can be performed just as effectively at home as in an office. The advantage of doing short meetings and reviews in person is clearly the ability to read and understand body language.
Audio calls deprive you the ability to make the best of the formats of interaction and hence the outcomes tend to be sub-optimal. However, tools with video like Zoom have been around for a while and have become mainstay for distributed teams. These teams have learnt the art of making all kinds of interactions effective without the need to meet in person. Necessity has forced distributed teams to be more open to these tools.
The biggest impediment is the mindset. Here’s an example: Three people from a team could get together impromptu in an office to settle an issue. But the same thing can be settled equally effectively if these they could get on a short conference call.
The resistance to learn and use these simple tools can lead one to believe that the biggest advantage of assembling under one roof every day after an arduous commute is the ability to do these short impromptu meetings to take quick decisions. For a long time after banking went online, some people were more comfortable visiting the branch. It took a while, and the imposition of a charge to enter a bank, for the laggards to realize that online banking was far more efficient than visiting the bank.
It is also helpful to question the effectiveness of the so-called face-to-face meetings. One of the biggest complaints I have heard all my professional life is the number of hours people seem to waste in meetings. The truth is that a good number of meetings are a waste of time. People are sitting idly waiting for their turn to speak or present.
Meetings are effective if an agenda has not been circulated in advance or if there is no review of follow-up actions. The only folks who seem to believe that meetings accomplish a lot are those who convene them. If the meeting structures could be tightened with the agenda and expected outcomes circulated in advance, then meetings could be held equally effectively using Zoom or a similar tool.
The teams that cope best with work from home and perform without a loss of productivity are those that work efficiently even in a regular office set-up. These are teams that don’t waste time in unnecessary meetings and plan only those that are absolutely essential. These are teams where there is a culture of people delivering what they promise with minimal need for reviews and follow-ups. These are teams where managers do not micro-manage and have taught and empowered their teams to take calls. It is time to be more open to work from home but hold the managers accountable for the effectiveness.
T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.