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Home / Opinion / Columns /  What Indians think of the work-from-home shift

Our lives are thankfully getting back on track, as most countries learn to live with the covid-19 virus. However, no shock at this scale recedes without leaving behind a different world. One area of profound change right now is the way we work, or at least those of us who can do their jobs remotely once we have a computer, a good internet connection and a quiet corner at home. It is no wonder that WFH has become an acronym that can now be featured in an office email without the need to spell out that it means ‘work from home’.

In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in the US, economists Johnathan Dingle and Brent Nieman had listed industries amenable to teleworking in descending order: information technology, finance, professions such as law, education, public administration, health, manufacturing, retailing, support services, transportation, construction, accommodation and food.

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Now, in a new NBER paper, six economists have used the insights of a survey conducted in 27 countries in mid-2021 and early 2022 to understand individual attitudes towards WFH, though they are also careful to point out that the sample is heavily skewed in favour of relatively well-educated people in every country, and more so in middle-income countries (‘Working From Home Around The World’ by Cevat Giray Aksoy, Jose Maria Berrero, Nicholas Bloom, Steven J. Davis, Mathias Dolls, Pablo Zarate, NBER Working Paper No. 30446).

India is one of the countries covered in their global survey. The data on how Indians think about WFH makes for interesting reading, because it shows that we—or more specifically, those of us who work in areas where teleworking is possible— have taken to the new way better than peers in other countries. Here are a few highlights.

Indians were working 2.6 days in a week from home during the week they took the survey. That was the most among all countries, and much above the global average of 1.5 days. Only Singapore came close, with an average (or more precisely the conditional mean) of 2.4 days.

One question the respondents were asked is how often their employers were planning to offer the WFH option every week, once the pandemic receded. The average Indian answer: 1.8 days. The global average: 0.7 days. Once again, India reported the highest number, with Singapore second at 1.1 days.

That was as far as employer intentions went. What did employees wish for after the pandemic? Indians said they would like to work for an average 2.1 days every week from home, as against the world average if 1.7 days. However, employees in many other countries such as Brazil, Canada, the US and Singapore reported a figure that was either the same or higher.

The gap between employee hopes and employer intentions about WFH was the lowest in India. The survey respondents were also asked what proportion of their incomes they were ready to give up to be able to get two or three days of WFH every week. Indians valued the option at 6.9% of their income. The global average was 5%, but there were many countries where the option was valued even higher than in India. Generally, women put a higher financial value on the WFH than men, which is understandable, given that women also bear an outsized portion of the burden of housework in most countries, including India.

One factor that makes WFH especially attractive for us is that it allows us to escape the commute to office. The survey asked respondents about their average daily commute. The average is 65 minutes across the world. Chinese employees spend the most time coming in to work—96 minutes. Indians are not far behind. They average commute in India is 93 minutes.

The answers to two other questions are worth mentioning. When employees were asked how much they thought their productivity went up because they were working from home, the global average was 6.7%, while it was 9.8% in India. And the social acceptance of WFH increased 35% over the pre-pandemic baseline in the 27 countries where the survey was conducted. Social acceptance went up by 50%, according to the Indians who responded to the survey.

Not everyone can work from home, but the lucky few who can obviously value the possibility. It appears that India is a leader in the shift—though it will be equally interesting what organizations think about this new way of organising work. Are the productivity gains that individual employees report aligned to what organizations as a whole experience? Are there higher coordination costs for remote working arrangements that individual employees cannot see?

Yet, despite these frictions, there is little doubt that the pandemic shock of the past two years and a half has shown that more flexible working arrangements are viable, even if large organizations completely built on teleworking are still a rarity. This radical shift will have a profound impact on companies, cities and broader economic networks.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is CEO and senior fellow at Artha India Research Advisors, and a member of the academic advisory board of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics.

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