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History shows WFH can’t be forever—yet

  • Innovations to support new organizational practices are a long-drawn process, as the world has seen after the Industrial Revolution

The coronavirus has made work-from-home the preferred option for many industries. But can remote work remain the norm after the pandemic gets over? A study by Réka Juhász of Columbia University and her co-authors finds that work-from-home has a long way to go before going permanent.

The working paper, published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, compares the effects of the present-day work-from-home practice with the pre-industrialization 19th-century work. Back then, factories were rare and most production took place at workers’ homes.

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Moving workers from home-grown industries to factories in the 19th century was an extremely slow transition because innovations in organizational set-ups took time. The initial period was spent without basic organizational knowledge, which evolved only through trial and error over decades.

Years of research in organizational techniques helped reduce costs and had spillover effects to other industries in the form of disciplined workers and division of labour, the study says.

In comparison, the transition during the pandemic was swift, driven by a public health emergency. The study says this quick transition proved costly due to lack of research and innovations in such organizational set-ups.

The study finds that the propensity to work was inversely related to the need of coordination. Industries that heavily relied on workers’ coordination, such as agriculture, construction, mining, healthcare, and retail trade, recorded a dip in work. Those in the services sectors, such as information technology, business, and finance, saw a rise in productivity as technology became more feasible to them.

Though companies managed the transition without caring much about organizational set-ups, the challenges of coordination and monitoring when workers do not work at a common location remain unaddressed. These practices will also evolve only with time, the study concludes. Work-from-home needs a lot more organizational research before becoming a permanent norm.

Also read: Away From Home and Back: Coordinating (Remote) Workers in 1800 and 2020


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