Working from home: Will it stand the test of time?

When the world was attacked by COVID-19 and with no proven drug/vaccine available for treating the virus-infected people, social distancing between individuals was advocated as an immediate solution to solve the problem

N S Venkataraman May 28, 2020
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When the world was attacked by COVID-19 and with no proven drug/vaccine available for treating the virus-infected people, social distancing between individuals was advocated as an immediate solution to solve the problem.  Even as the unending debate continued on the causes and effect of COVID-19, the lockdown was imposed to enforce social distancing, which has now proved to be very costly for the economy of the countries around the world.

To lessen the burden on the economy and to keep the productive operations to continue to a possible extent, working from home was suggested as a solution to reduce the adverse impact on the economy.

With the working from home concept being adopted by several government departments and companies around the world, the debate started about the merits and demerits of working from home. Till today, the last word has not been said about the merits and demerits and the appropriateness of this concept.

The ground reality is that the types of functions where work from home can be carried out and the potential number of people who could work from home in various functions are very limited. Most of the operations are carried out on the shop floor and in commercial enterprises, so here work from home is not possible at all.  Therefore, obviously, working from home is not a major solution to keep the economy moving.

At best, work from home is suitable only for some operations and organisations like software, consultancy, etc. with the aid of modern communication facilities and technology. Even in such cases, where working from home can be possibly practiced, there are serious limitations and bottlenecks in ensuring efficiency and productivity of those working from home.

Many believe that efficiency of working from home may be less than 50 percent in most cases, since the requisite guidance from the superior authorities cannot be provided to the desired level in carrying out the task. Often, such instructions and guidance call for face-to-face meetings and with continuous interactions.

Further, in working from home, there cannot be discipline of time-bound working hours and inevitably people will relax or get disturbed or their attention will be directed from the tasks and duties due to a variety of reasons.

The most important factor is that it is possible that quite a number of people who work from home may not have the commitment and duty consciousness to the level required and they may need strict supervision to ensure their output.

While systematic detailed study is yet to be conducted to ascertain the efficiency level of working from home, many senior executives seem to be under the impression that employees working from home are not an ideal or desirable method of running an organization. They seem to think that large scale levels of people working from home will impact the overall performance of the organisations very severely and this practice will not stand the test of time.

Of course, the employees in the organisations “who enjoy the pleasure  of working from home” seem to feel extremely happy, as they do not have to commute to the office, can have flexible working hours and can relax whenever they need, even as they do not lose their salary and perks.

In most of the functions, the output is not measurable on a day to day basis and therefore, those working from home may even be able to escape from the scrutiny of their output.

The concept of working from home may work in the case of self-employed people, who set the target for themselves and may put forward the best of efforts to achieve the target set for themselves whether they ”work from home or outside the home.”

The concept of working from home is not new and is known for long. In the COVID-19 period, the option of working from home has been adopted as a measure of least choice with no other option open.

Some software companies have come out with vague claims that they can ask a large number of employees to work from home in the post-COVID-19 period too, as it would benefit the organisation by having to have less working space, less power consumption, etc. However, from the point of view of cost-benefit analysis, working from home will not be found advantageous in the short or long run. The organisations which opt for employees working from home as permanent practice in the post virus period will realise their mistake and will learn at a cost and would give up this practice very soon.

(The writer is a Trustee, NGO Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai. He can be contacted at nsvenkatchennai@gmail.com)

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