When India first went into a lockdown mode in March, the country was shrouded with uncertainty and fear over what to expect and when and whether life would ever return to normal again. Today, six months on, we have learnt to accept that the virus could be a permanent feature and to live with this reality.
This has affected the way we socialise, travel, study and work. In a report titled Awfis Remote Working Report, by flex workspace provider Awfis, around 80 per cent of the respondents have said that their roles can be performed from a remote environment. Further, 60 per cent saved up to an hour or more of commute time, while 74 per cent said that they were more willing to work remotely.
With most offices continuing with remote work setups, both organisations and employees are coming to terms with what may be the new normal in a COVID, and, most probably, a post-COVID future - a possibility of working from home for the rest of the year, or even permanently, as jobs go remote.
Challenges of a WFH set up
However, work from home is not always as rosy as it may seem. As per a World Bank paper, a country’s level of economic development will determine how feasible work from home will be. India, for instance, despite having the second-largest number of internet users, also has one of the lowest internet penetration rates with 50 per cent of its population disconnected from the internet.
Inflated electricity charges and mobile bills are other concerns that employees are facing as they continue working at home. Further, a survey by job portal Monster has shown that 50 per cent of respondents were feeling a burnout after working from home for such a long time.
Physical health issues such as neck pain and back pain due to prolonged work hours, exposure to digital devices and sitting at spaces that may not be ergonomically designed for work, are compounded by feelings of isolation and lack of motivation.
Further, employees not only need to manage work from home but also carrying out other responsibilities of caring for the home, family, kids, etc. This can lead to isolation, burn-out and mental fatigue.
For women, remote work has proven to be a double-edged sword - both an enabler which allows women in full-time jobs to manage their schedules better and for women currently out of the workforce to return to work via part-time and remote-work opportunities.
However, women have been disproportionately bearing domestic and care responsibilities. This puts added pressure and can lead to burn-outs, reduced time available to invest in paid work, etc.
Shreya Prakash, co-founder FlexiBees, an organisation that aims to create a flexible work ecosystem to enable women to return to the workforce, explains that it is necessary to not demonise work from home but to restructure some of the social and organisational behaviours we have been ignoring. "Some of these entail men taking on an equal or equivalent share of home and care duties and organisations accounting for this new reality in their work schedules and demands,” she explains.
How organisations can help their employees
This is where organisations need to step in and support their staff. Amit Ramani, CEO & Founder Awfis and Vice President, Indian Workspace Association believes that work from home can only work best when there is an in-built culture of trust in organisations. “As far as policies are concerned, we believe organisations, along with their HR, should make efforts to understand the individual work from home arrangement for employees and offer requisite support to keep them motivated and on track towards achieving their performance goals. There is merit in revisiting performance policies, employee benefit policies, attendance management policies etc. from a company standpoint.”
Shreya adds that organisations need to acknowledge and counter challenges on the front foot, and not just when flare-ups happen. She lists ways in which organisations can help and support their staff during these difficult times:
Signal acceptance that it’s ok to occasionally feel overwhelmed, fatigued, discontent, and take a day off when it happens. Organisations have learnt to make these provisions for physical health issues, now we need to start acknowledging the contribution that mental and emotional health too has on general well being.
Set ‘off the grid’ times when your team can disconnect and relax and encourage or even mandate the team to take lunch and snack breaks during the work-day. In the last few months, working lunches mean that everybody eats on their own, not bothering to take a break or to let their managers or external stakeholders know they need that half an hour of downtime
Set channels for informal communication. This could be through team snacks, chai, or weekly get-togethers, all done virtually of course. It might seem sub-optimal when compared to going out to the tapri outside the office, but is notches above a situation where the team has not interacted outside of work in ages.
Identify and support those team members who need more help than others, like single parents, immuno-compromised people, team members with elder or child care responsibilities and be extra vigilant about their well-being. A little care extended now will go a long way towards providing a great employee experience.
On their part, organisations are also doing their bit to make the transition to a work from home set up easier – with the pandemic entering its seventh month, Google recently announced three-day weekend for employees to ensure the “collective wellbeing” of their employees. Flipkart has introduced COVID-19 leaves where employees can take up to 28 days of COVID care leave in case they are diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of whether they are hospitalised or not.
Amit explains, "Organisations are increasingly waking up to the fact that it needs to be convenient and productive for employees to work in this setup. Therefore, they are now providing employees with dedicated work from home infrastructure or are offering them an allowance to equip themselves with the requisite work from home tools."
The new normal: Flex workspaces and hybrid models
While people are slowly getting back to their offices with unlock 4.0 increasing office attendance to 30 per cent, what experts foresee is a shift towards a hybrid model – one which would see some of its employees working from home, and others from an office location.
In the long run, Amit feels that flex workspaces are also a great option through which organisations can provide their people with a conducive work-near-home set up, to keep their work from entering their homes and vice versa, and also enable them to meet their colleagues and collaborate within these safe spaces. Organisations can also work out a hybrid model through which employees can work from home on some days and work out of a flex workspace with their teams when needed.
Remote working set up comprising work from home and work near home options will, in fact, remove the necessity for many jobs to be location-specific. “This will in turn help individuals from across India apply for jobs irrespective of where they are based without having to relocate thereby making opportunities available to a wider audience as compared to before and creating a level playing ground for many,” Amit explains.
The increased acceptance of work from home and a hybrid model of work will help people who want to work outside of the 9 to 7 traditional ecosystem, to put their talent and time to productive use, to have a chance to attain professional growth and fulfillment. “This will break down geographical barriers to opportunity, distributing it far and wide via the internet superhighway, creating prosperity for individuals and communities no matter where they are. It will create more time for people to enjoy other areas of life, seek balance, and actively pursue personal fulfillment too,” Shreya concludes.