Ask an employee today what those ‘three magical words’ are, and chances are that he’ll utter ‘Work from Home’ (WFH). Between March 15-21, ‘Work from home’ (WFH) was the most searched term in the world and continues to be one of the most popular search terms on Google. Researchers and practitioners are predicting WFH as the future of organizations. Recently, TCS announced that by 2025, 75% of its employees would be working from home. Many see the move to WFH as a much-needed respite from long commutes, inflexible schedules, and high real-estate costs for both employees and employers. On the other hand, it is now also being realized that WFH brings its own set of problems. A large number of employees are reporting poor productivity, higher burnout and even mental issues from working in isolation for extended periods. In light of this, it may be advisable for HR leaders to critically examine some of the challenges emerging from the practice of WFH and what organizations can do about it, should they commit to such a system.
Maintaining employee productivity:
Studies have shown working from home can reduce employee productivity by as much as 40%. Many organizations, who switched to WFH when the COVID-19 pandemic started, now report that after the initial enthusiasm waned off, employee productivity has been continuously downhill. Many reasons have been cited for this, including employees who are distracted by household chores, the inability to schedule work properly, the lack of a ‘competitive office atmosphere’, and the inability of managers to exercise the same amount of control, which is possible in a traditional workplace. What does this hold for HR leadership? First, during hiring, organizations will increasingly look for individuals who exhibit a high degree of self-control and discipline. Research shows that the one characteristic distinguishing high-performers from low-performers in WFH environments is ‘self-discipline.’ Organizations should resort to using tests and psychometric assessments to determine these traits when hiring for predominantly WFH based roles. WFH will also lead to a change in the incentive structure. In the past few years, incentives have had a larger share allocated towards team performance than individual performance. As people start working in isolation with reduced interaction, reward structures will start tilting towards individual performance to a greater degree.
Cultivating accountability and productivity:
A key challenge in remote work is for managers. The ability of the manager to provide guidance, make course corrections, and intervene to solve bottlenecks is drastically reduced in a WFH arrangement. Many organizations have reported an ‘abuse of email’ – threads over threads exchanged on ‘work’ yet no work being actually performed, as employees keep shifting responsibility to each other. To compensate for the lack of ‘managing’, organizations will need to teach employees how to self-set goals and follow up on them without the need for consistent managerial supervision. The use of OKR’s (Objectives and Key Results) can be precious in this regard. OKR is an outcome driven, collaborative goal-setting methodology that lets teams and individuals set goals with measurable results. The beauty of OKRs is in its ‘cascading effect’- every goal is connected from bottom to top, bringing a tight integration between individual, team and organizational objectives. Employees will soon be trained in adopting such methods as part of their induction process in the organization.
Productivity losses are attributable to another fundamental issue – the inability of employees to communicate problems within the team effectively. Face-to-face communication is a fast iterating process. One can solve issues quite expeditiously by repeating him or herself. However, the same is not the case with virtual teams. At the end of the day, there are only a limited number of Zoom meetings that a team can have. Organizations would need to work on augmenting the written and online communication skills of employees and make them adept at communicating in a digital environment.
Increased adoption of co-working spaces:
CoViD-19 has also brought to the front a paradox − employers want employees to work from home but (a chunk of) employees now want to return to office. Many employees complain about household distractions and lack of an ‘office atmosphere’ for their lack of productivity. In many cases, employees may be living in small accommodations with a higher number of family members with no personal space. How can organizations balance this demand for an office environment with the policy of working from home? One potential solution could be using ‘co-working spaces’ where workplace facilities are offloaded to external service providers. Employers may soon start giving allowances for buying co-working spaces to employees as part of their CTC. This may help organizations minimize their real-estate costs, while maintaining the traditional ‘office space’ that some employees desire.
Ensuring data security:
One of the most critical challenges of WFH is security. Many of the technologies worked on (specifically in IT and software organizations) are proprietary and usage is secured within the confines of the organization’s intranet. With WFH, organizations can look forward to higher capital investment in strengthening network security. The aspect of security also involves a component of behavioral change. It is not uncommon for employees to copy organizational data to insecure cloud services or personal emails to work upon later. Organizations will need to raise awareness on intellectual property among employees and devise more robust protocols on how data is to be handled.
Similarly, co-working spaces can bring their own set of issues. IT companies tend to have strong access controls to protect client information. Now imagine, two rival organizations having their employees working in the same co-working space and using the same network infrastructure. Even if networks are secured, how do you prevent employees from talking to each other or peeking into laptop screens physically? Thus, the implementation of security protocols will be a considerable challenge. One way could be that organizations sign exclusive contracts with co-working space providers to ensure only non-competing organizations be able to lease space with their employees at the same location.
Preventing work-life spillover:
While WFH provides much-needed flexibility, it also creates a tremendous spillover. Meetings and phone calls at abrupt times will only foster resentment in employees towards WFH. Worse, if not controlled voluntarily, it may soon lead to legal intervention by the government. An example of this is the growing demand for ‘Right to Disconnect’ in Europe, which proposes a complete embargo on office communication outside of working hours. The CoViD-19 pandemic and imbalanced WFH lifestyles will only strengthen demands for such laws in other countries. It may be advisable that organizations voluntary implement protocols respecting individual time and privacy. This will go a long way in making WFH sustainable in the long run.
While remote working may seem like a compelling proposition, organizations need to carefully think about their capability, resources, and preparedness before committing to such a system. After all, it takes a lot of ‘work’ to make ‘work from home’ work for you!