Every office goer, at some point in time, has complained about the great ordeal of commuting to and from office. Or the monotony of office cubicles, and the many unnecessary round-table meetings. These factors at times also result in lower employee productivity and a lack of motivation.
For employers, keeping their employees productive and motivated is paramount.
With the radical advancement of communication technology and the Internet boom, we have seen a rise in the work-from-home trend. This was a boon for many employees for whom travelling 5-6 days a week was a genuine ordeal. For employers, it also meant lower overheads.
However, despite the benefits, work from home didn’t really gain a strong impetus.
But it all changed with the COVID-19 crisis. Even companies who never thought work-from-home was possible for them, had to make the shift.
The lockdowns that followed the pandemic saw offices, both big and small, shutting their doors, and it pushed a big part of the global as well as the Indian workforce to work from home.
Even when all of this ends, the idea of “social distancing” and the fear of another health hazard will continue to loom over the minds of individuals. Work-from-home is bound to remain a part of almost every organisation across the globe.
But does this mean the work-from-office will be a thing of the past? Can work-from-home completely replace work-from-office?
Work-from-Home vs Work-from-Office: Evaluating the Arguments
The debate on the viability of the entire organisation or some of their employees working from home has been going on for decades. A popular survey has found that nearly 65% of employees are more productive in their home office than in a traditional workplace. But we all know that one statistic cannot be the answer to all the questions and apprehensions.
So, let’s start by evaluating the arguments for and against this emerging phenomenon.
The biggest relief for employees working from home is not having to undertake long, tedious commutes. According to a study, on average, Indians spend 7% of their day commuting to the office. That equals roughly two hours on the road per day. That’s quite a lot of time and a lot of boring traffic, right?
All that time can essentially be saved by telecommuting. Telecommuting simply means working remotely or from home by making full use of the internet, email, and phone.
While there are still some people who enjoy the travel and want a separation of home and office, there are others who think differently. People would rather prefer to spend more time with their family or indulge in their hobbies than spend it cursing the traffic.
So, given a choice, people would like to escape the rush hour commute and settle to working from the comfort of their homes.
According to the 2020 State of Business Communication Report, face-to-face communication is still the most preferred communication method among employees. And no, this doesn’t include video conferencing.
This is something that one can get only in an office space. This also opens up immense opportunities for networking. Apart from business planning, human beings are social creatures and crave active conversations. Sharing a cup of coffee or interacting during lunchtime can go a long way in building lasting relationships.
Even for an employer, communicating with the employees may be a cause of concern. Many believe that a Zoom call cannot be as effective as a round-table conference. A face-to-face chat can often be more clarifying than phone calls. A widely-accepted rule is that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).
Communication still happens when you’re working remotely, but its nature differs. Face-to-face communication translates to video calls. Short conversations turn into Slack messages. Emails…well, they never stop piling up.
Working from an office is about following a strict office timetable. The dreaded alarm clock will buzz at the same time every day, and even if one is behind schedule, they would go to superhuman lengths to be at their desks before anyone else notices the delay.
Well, that has changed with working from home. If a company is new to this, the chances are that they will stick to the 9-to-5 (or 9-to-6) schedule, but even then, employees will have the option to get an extra hour of sleep and will get to choose their own lunchtime. Moreover, employees can choose to work from anywhere – their bedroom, their living room, by the balcony, provided they get good internet connectivity in those places. The need for a well-groomed, formal look round-the-clock isn’t a necessity anymore.
As more companies adopt a remote-first policy, working hours are likely to shift to fit the employee’s schedule. This means more flexibility and freedom on the part of the employees and for employers, lesser stress in managing them.
However, the downside to this is many employees struggle to disconnect when working from home. With the start-time being flexible and with the absence of a rigid routine, it can easily put employees off track and they might end up spending even more time in front of the computer.
The right work ambience boosts productivity while the wrong one can be harshly detrimental to it. When working at the office, employees don’t have a choice in their work environment or office setting. If they have a noisy coworker, they just have to bear with it. Or if the air conditioner is bothering someone, they can’t just get up and turn it off.
At home, one has the option to optimise their workspace as per their requirements and preferences. But living with a large family, especially with kids, can be equally distracting. If the neighbour is fond of blaring loudspeakers, one can hardly do anything about it. These only affect the focus, but can also cause unwanted nuisance during important phone calls or video conferences.
In a popular survey, 47% of employees said they strongly agree that flexible work arrangements “would or do allow me to be more productive” and 31% said they somewhat agree. This is commonly attributed to fewer interruptions, less stress from no commute, minimal office politics, and a personalised, quiet environment. Consistent research has also shown that remote workers usually log longer hours than their office-bound counterparts.
However, one great boon of office life is the productive vibes from the coworkers. It’s always bustling with activity, and this can keep a person motivated to get through the heap of work. If an employee is prone to procrastination, then they are likely to have more opportunities to do so at home than at the office.
While the employees have a lot of reasons to love working from home, the biggest debate is whether the management team feels the same way about it. With the COVID-19 situation, many organisations have had to choose the work-from-home model all of a sudden. This has presented a new challenge for managers who have never managed a remote workforce before.
When working from an office, managers have a clear view of what the team members are working on. They can easily go up to an employee and ask questions or hold short discussions or give a small pep talk if they find someone slacking. But this is not possible if the employees are working from home.
Shifting from office-based work to remote working needs essential shifts in the company policies. Maintaining communication will be the key. However, managers need not be too worried as there are plenty of tools to manage a remote workforce. We have curated a list of such tools over here.
A key benefit for organisations choosing to have their employees work from home is that it helps them cut down on some otherwise essential costs.
Going by popular opinion, nearly 77% of executives believe allowing employees to work remotely may lead to lower operating costs. A company entirely based on working from home won’t need to pay the office rent. Utility bills and other management costs can be significantly lowered as well.
For employees, too, this is a win-win deal. They can save big on transport costs and the expenses of maintaining a formal wardrobe and are less likely to be tempted to go out and spend money on happy hours, or eating out frequently.
But working from home has its own unavoidable expenses. There is an initial investment in setting up the right workplace and cutting down these will only result in lower productivity. Typically, these expenses include desks, chairs, network routers, and monitors. There is also the monthly broadband expense, which some organisations may choose to bear but others will not.
Employee Onboarding & Training
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a true saying. Despite the list of work-from-home benefits, physical distance adds a few of its own challenges. For instance, interns and new employees get a lot more value when they are sitting side by side with their manager, mentor, and peers. It effectively eases the learning curve,something that’s harder to achieve when they are all working from home.
Virtual onboarding can be a bit more complex. Logistic issues also show up while setting up the employee’s workstation with a laptop, access keys, etc. Getting a new employee acquainted with the team also becomes more difficult.
Team Building & Work Culture
An organisation, be it of 20 employees or of 2000, is a collective entity. Team spirit and work culture are the two defining characteristics of every company. While not outright impossible, working remotely poses challenges to team building. If a company has two sections of employees, some of them based out of the office and others working from home, it might lead to involuntary discrimination. Knowledge barriers can creep in as there is a chance that someone won’t get invited to a meeting, or someone will not receive important communication.
Simply speaking, brainstorming sessions with employees before a physical whiteboard is likely to be more productive than ‘cyber white-boarding’ with people in remote locations. A collaborative work culture creates a sense of belonging for a team and boosts team spirit. It is also easier for employees to absorb the company culture if they are physically present at the location.
What does the Future Look Like?
Working from home is still a relatively new trend but a very promising one.
One study by Upwork estimates that by 2028, 73% of all departments will have remote workers.
But can this new trend overwrite the good, old office cubicles and round-table conferences? Well, that needs to be seen.
The global pandemic will definitely have its implications. In a post-COVID world, the dynamics of office culture have changed. Being forced into work-from-home due to the lockdowns has helped to bust some myths and cleared many scepticisms against remote working.
Remote working, with all its benefits, though, will not be effective for every company. Some jobs require people to be at the office or in the field. Also, it has been found that older workers or people who live in places with lousy broadband access can struggle to work remotely.
However, in India, telecommunication and accessibility to the internet are booming. This has contributed to the growth and spread of the work-from-home culture.
Statistics show that 69% of millennials would give up other work benefits for a more flexible working space. Another survey has found that companies that allow remote work have 25% lower employee turnover than those that don’t.
So, even as the lockdowns ease and offices open their gates once again, the rules of social distancing are likely to stay for long. The employers have to now decide on how to best accommodate their employees, while also keeping the interests of the organisation in mind. A mix of work-from-home and work-from-office is something we expect to see become a new norm in the ‘new normal’ world.