The unprecedented covid health crisis led humanity to find unprecedented ways to survive and continue their economic activities. One of these was work-from-home (WFH), wherever possible. However, it was not an ‘unprecedented’ move.
WFH is not novel. For centuries people have gotten up to make a daily commute or retreat into a room for work. Historically, the office was ‘an activity’ long before it was a ‘place’. There have been variously variegated work models, WFH included, which existed as early as in ancient Rome. It is documented that every Roman town had a ‘forum’, which was a large square surrounded by shops and government offices. From the Roman word ‘officium’, which means ‘bureau’, we get the word ‘office’. By the medieval times, work spaces came to be shaped by social and cultural norms. For instance, monks at the time worked in quiet spaces that were specially designed for activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. In Home: The Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski argues that the 17th century was a turning point. Lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals began to work from specialized offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. This led to a cultural distinction between the office and the home. Yet, WFH continued well into modern times. In the 19th century, financial businesses like Barings and those run by the Rothschilds would function from luxurious homes to make their clients feel comfortable. As the requirement of documentation gained importance, the concept of the modern office sprang up, with specifically designed places for work, meetings ,dealing with clients, etc.
The pandemic gave WFH a new lease of life as a virtue made out of a necessity. Once often frowned upon, the concept found supporters as well as critics, and remains under debate.
First consider the environmental relief. While humanity was locked down in fear of the virus during much of 2020, nature was rejuvenating itself. Social media was abuzz with stories of receding pollution, calmer neighbourhoods, the chirp of birds and wild animals exploring deserted towns. There was news of the Dhauladhar range being spotted from Jalandhar in Punjab, the white peaks of Gangotri from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Mount Everest from a village in Bihar. It seemed as if nature had found its rightful place in the scheme of things on this planet. With fewer commuters, greenhouse gas emissions dropped. According to a 2019 survey by MoveInSync, an average Indian office-goer spends over two hours commuting everyday. In India, the transport sector is the third most CO2 emitting sector, and within the transport sector, road transport contribute over 90% of total CO2 emissions. At a time when India is working hard to meet its climate commitments, the environmental gains we achieved during the WFH period were welcome.
The WFH approach was also found advantageous to employers and employees. The latter saved time on long commute hours and the former saved on the cost of maintaining an office space. For job-holders, the idea of a wider pool of employers to choose from, headquartered in multiple geographies, was very appealing. Employers too could source work from remote locations.
Some disadvantages of WFH were also seen. As the line between work life and home life got blurred, experts talked about mental health issues rising. Often people leave work tensions at office. With WFH, these tensions can cause anxiety at home. Long work hours may also lead to burnouts. Besides, there is the extra expense incurred for a WFH set-up, with needs for an internet connection, steady power supply, security firewalls, etc. In addition, there is a risk of inter-personal skills and camaraderie getting hampered by a lack of in-person interaction.
As companies started recalling employees back to work, studies show that many people do not want to return to a physical office space. A research study by LinkedIn points to a lopsided gender pattern that has emerged with the phase-out of WFH, with 7 of every 10 women quitting their jobs in 2022 on account of rigid work hours and policies. Together with a decline in labour force participation, that indicates a worrisome trend: a significant chunk of our well qualified population is opting out of mainstream jobs, depriving the economy of its skill sets.
Many office-goers are pitching for WFH permanence, or at least a hybrid approach of attending office twice or thrice a week, or as needs dictate. This has been picked up as the way to go by private employers. WFH got a huge boost globally when US-based Amazon said late last year that it will indefinitely let many workers work remotely, as long as they can reach office when necessary. Companies like Drop Box, Novartis, Quora, Twitter and Spotify have embraced a permanent WFH culture. Hybrid work models are favoured by Ford, Google, Microsoft, Siemens and others.
In India, hybrid models have been adopted by companies like Tata Steel, Wipro, TCS and even a manufacturer like Maruti Suzuki, which has declared that a certain section of its people can work completely from remote locations.
Having experienced both WFH and a office-work paradigms, each employee and employer will now have to decide the best approach to get work done. As economies unlocked and humanity started moving around, nature has started to recede again. One would have wanted to see the lockdown environmental gains achieve sustainability. Perhaps the climate can be a consideration for work policies from here onwards?
These are the authors’ personal views.
Shefali Dhingra and Anuradha Guru are officers of the Indian Economic Service
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