As workers return to offices, remember that one size does not fit all

By Livemint
Photo: Mint

Over 1,000 Wipro employees went back to work in their offices on Monday. Given the ferocity of India’s second covid wave and worries of a potential third wave, this may sound a bit surprising. But Wipro is not the only one. Many large employers, including TCS, Infosys and ITC, have either spoken about reversing work-from-home (WFH) policies or done it, now that significant numbers are covid-vaccinated. As in Wipro’s case, full vaccination of those back at their desks is held as a must, various other safety protocols are enforced, and the recall is usually done in stages. But, inertia apart, a decision by any business to get its office staff back is not as straightforward as it may seem. In the US, worker resistance to returning has reportedly altered work-location policies, job switches have been led by remote-work preferences, and some companies have spotted productivity gains to justify making it permanent. While conditions in India differ, the best way to work has been under debate here too. After all, in the pandemic’s disruption lay an experiment from which lessons are crying out to be drawn.

From a web-wired worker’s perspective, the advantages of WFH can be reeled off easily. Beyond its easing of travel stress, the comfort of home and time-flexibility on tasks afforded by it are found to have allowed a superior work-life balance in many cases. Family demands, like caring for children and/or ailing parents, may also have been met better. Not only have satisfaction levels got reset, as Mint columnist Biju Dominic has argued, WFH makes space for gains in innovation, as it has been observed that breakthrough ideas and solutions tend to strike people when their minds are most relaxed, a state that even ‘cool’ offices can’t assure as well as homes can. Not all employees would agree with this list of benefits, though. Patriarchal social conditions have left many women overburdened with household chores. Such strains are among the reasons cited for increased women dropping out of jobs. Moreover, living spaces that were not designed as work-enablers could feel cramped. And then, there’s the loss of an office spirit in its reduction to flat screens, not to speak of long gaps in informal peer interaction, which is important for team dynamics.

What employees want, however, is relevant only to the extent it serves the interests of their employers. Enterprises that have few self-motivated folks on their rolls, for example, would need them back in offices just for supervision. Most businesses would need office activity for cultural cues of the organization to get around (and reach fresh recruits). Some may prefer online tools. But, for all, the post-pandemic continuance of WFH should be a strategic call taken after top-level deliberation. As professor Nitin Nohria of Harvard Business School recently suggested, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all formula to their entire staff, businesses should craft hybrid work models; they should map the goals of different functions (and even teams) against their differing functional needs—say, efficiency in coordination, spontaneity in ideation, etc.—and then adopt a mixed plan that optimizes all for top value. Companies that achieve harmony this way could develop a competitive edge. Actual observations would have to guide this, not assumptions. Crucially, the rationale must be clear to everyone, and nobody should be at either extreme of a full-WFH or daily-office routine. This is a chance to think work through. Let’s not waste it.

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