Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | Permanent work from home could be a retrograde policy
Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Permanent work from home could be a retrograde policy

It could create a harmful conflict between one’s home and occupational identities that women may find harder to deal with

A possible fallout of the covid-19- induced lockdown is that several companies are planning to extend their work-from-home (WFH) policy to normal times too. Modern technology that allows remote file sharing over an internet cloud, videoconferencing, etc., has made it easier to implement such a policy. A large and high-profile company like Twitter is reported to have given its employees the option of not returning to office after the lockdown. This has increased the confidence of many other companies in opting for an extended WFH policy.

Will WFH help take employee motivation and productivity to higher levels?

In human evolutionary history, work has always been a social activity. Hunting for food in the savannas was always done in a group. Primitive societies imposed social sanctions to punish free- riders who did not join that group activity. Even after humans started agriculture, preparing the ground to plant seeds, harvesting crops, and so on were all social activities. Even after the emergence of private property, working together to share common resources, like water, building common walls, etc., was the norm. It is basic human nature to work in groups.

The scientific management principles propagated by F.W. Taylor and the invention of the assembly line during the industrial revolution were the first significant attempts to convert work into an individual activity. In the name of specialization, the whole job was divided into sets of small activities, and each individual worker was asked to focus only on a specific task. The worker’s specialization in that activity did increase the workforce’s productivity. But this approach also had several downsides. The individual worker was considered an easily replaceable part of a mechanical network. The individual worker missed the larger purpose of his actions. This new way of working sucked the joy out of work.

No doubt, there was a backlash against this new found way of working. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community, Robert D. Putnam lists numerous initiatives that were introduced within and outside companies to compensate for the loneliness of the assembly line. Trade union movements and the creation of common parks were among the attempts to create more social connections between workers. The very fact that the nomenclature of the management function that dealt with employees changed from “labour relations" to “personnel management" to “human resource management" to “human capital management" is sufficient proof that organizations realized their error. They have started treating each employee not as a commodity but as an asset.

It is often said that America’s NASA managed to put a man on the moon not only because a few engineers worked towards that goal, but also because even the janitor at the space agency believed that he was doing his bit to achieve it. Ordinary organizations become great only when every employee is wholeheartedly working for a common purpose. One necessary condition for creating such a sense of purpose is meeting frequently in a common place. Organized religion and the armed forces know this very well. Offices bring employees to a common place. It allows an easy propagation of company norms and stories. This helps every employee, fresh talent especially so, to better internalize the company’s culture. How can a strong company culture be inculcated if every employee is working from home?

One of the strongest influences on human behaviour is the context. This shapes most of the processes in our brain, from visual perceptions to the conduct of social interactions. The specific meaning of an object, word, emotion, or social event depends on the context. Each context has its own set of distinct norms, expectations, and even dress code. These are mostly conscious determinants of a context. It could be that the most important determinant of a context, one that works at a subconscious level, is the identity one takes on in that particular context.

Traditional psychology theories had assumed we adopt a single identity. But recent behavioural science studies have established that we all have multiple identities. Based on the context, we don one of these. So, when we are at home, we wear one identity, and when we are in office, we slip into another. We follow norms and the dress codes in consonance with each of those identities. So far, home and office contexts were clearly demarcated. But with a WFH policy, an individual is forced to wear both one’s home identity and the occupational one in the same physical context. This sets up a conflict between identities, not just within oneself, but also with the home identities of other family members. Being pulled in different directions by these identities is bound to increase stress levels, perhaps especially so of women employees.

Women across the world have worked very hard to break the shackles that patriarchy imposed on them. Critical to this emancipation journey have been increasing opportunities to step outside the traditional context of the home and kitchen. Being in an office environment made it easier for women to don a new professional identity to its full extent. But with WFH, many women seem to have been thrown deep into the conflict between one’s home and work identities. On the surface, such a policy might be seen as helping employees achieve a better work-life balance. But it could also drive women back into their kitchens and accentuate a gender bias in society that already exists.

Organizations should realize that just because many of the jobs they get done do not apparently need the physical presence of employees, or because many of the jobs can be executed independently, they should not blindly jump onto the WFH bandwagon.

Work-from-home is not simply about cutting and pasting a 10am-to-6pm work schedule onto the home context. A lot more thought has to go into it before a WFH policy can really work.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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