COVID-19 Isn’t Over Yet. How Long Will ‘Work From Home’ Continue?

In the over nine months of the pandemic, has ‘Work From Home’ had greater benefits than drawbacks?

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of ‘work from home’ scenario used for representational purposes.
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The Work From Home (WFH) culture — that has become the new normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the gig economy are here to stay. However, this is not the first time that the world is seeing a paradigm shift in work culture.

For instance, the Industrial Revolution had also brought about profound changes; people started leaving their homes and toiling in an external work environment. This transformation gave birth to a new movement of skilled workers and was the beginning of the ‘9-to-5’ work schedule in office.

The development of public transportation brought further changes in the office culture. Consequently, the 20th century workforce turned into a commuting one, leading to a rise in employment opportunities in offices and factories engaged in manufacturing and the service economy.

How Work-From-Home Became The ‘Norm’

The nature of office work further changed in the early 20th century with the advent of the telephone, telegraph and typewriter. Though by the early 1960s a majority of the workforce was a commuting one, the beginning of the ‘70s saw several key changes that pushed remote work to the forefront.

Especially after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo and the clean air Act in the US. In view of the high oil prices and shortages, the rise of the information economy, environmental concerns and gridlock commutes, companies began their experiment to formalise remote work for employees.

The adoption of WFH increased manifold in the late 20th and early 21st century with the emergence of information and communication technologies.

India isn’t new to the remote working experience either. For about two decades this mode of work has been in trend in the information technology (IT) industry in the country.

COVID-19 & Shift To A ‘New Normal’

Now, when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak, resilience is being displayed by many employers. They are exploring new ways to ensure a seamless continuance of their business. The pandemic has compelled industrialists to think of innovative work solutions in order to get the best out of their employees.

This can be seen as both a return to the pre-industrial revolution work routines and advancement towards the future of work. According to the International Labour Organization, around 68 percent of the world’s total workforce, including 81 percent employers, are currently living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures.

According to the job search site Indeed, since the outbreak, searches for remote work have increased by over 261 percent. Similarly on LinkedIn, remote job postings nearly tripled since March 2020, ranging from 1.5 times in Canada to 4.9 times in Brazil. HFS Research reports that the global IT industry showed a remarkable shift in the way it operated by enabling over 75 percent of the workforce to work from home. It ranges from 62 percent in the Philippines, 72 percent in the UK, 77 percent in India to 93 percent in China.

An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) report reveals that 74 percent of regular workers would like to continue with some form of a WFH arrangement in a post-COVID world.

The survey results show that around half of the remote workers in the country are from the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and the Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) sector followed by IT-software, education, e-commerce, publishing, banking, financial services and the insurance sectors.

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, almost 90 percent of the 4.3 million IT/BPO/ITES sector workforce moved to the WFH model in India.

What Are The Pros Of Work-From-Home Situation?

Remote working and the virtual way of life have benefited employees, employers and all stakeholders, allowing them to pause, think, and balance their work, social, physical, mental and digital wellness.

The employers’ benefit is in the reduction or elimination of real estate costs. They can hire and use talent globally while mitigating immigration issues. Firms reap productivity gains while workers are enjoying geographical flexibility which eliminates long commute.

In particular, flexible workspaces allow women to restore work-life balance.

A study published in the Lancet found that WFH not only benefits public health but also helps with sustainable travel.

It helps cities lower their carbon footprint and reduces traffic congestions that lead to air pollution. As a result, employees and employers are spared many of the hidden costs associated with going to the workplace.

What’s The Downside To Working From Home?

However, as in all things, there is a flip side too, and WFH also poses many unique challenges.

People working from home are vulnerable to longer working hours, frequent interruptions, cyber security challenges, lack of peer support, lack of motivation for team work and in some cases even greater stress.

Lack of a proper work space at home too has created problems for some, while inappropriate working conditions have led to health issues for others. Face-to-face interaction that is vital to nurturing relationships and facilitating collaboration has been absent, leading to reduced mental well-being.

It is harder in industries that require physical location or presence for manufacturing activities. WFH is least suitable for drivers, construction workers, shop sales professionals and domestic helpers.

The Way Forward

The government has recently removed several reporting and regulatory compliances for IT-BPO service providers such as deposit of bank guarantees, requirement for a static Internet Protocol address, publication of the network diagram and penal provisions to facilitate work-from-home.

According to the Labour Secretary, the Ministry proposes to frame guidelines for workers employed in the services sector, such as work flexibility and an explicit WFH provision for companies.

These steps are important for the future of work, not only in the IT sector but for other service sectors, too.

This would help to promote a new work culture and provide the much-needed boost to the emerging gig economy, which has a huge potential to generate new employment opportunities for the unemployed men and women in India.

(Nidhi is Director at ‘The Vision’, New Delhi and Balwant Singh Mehta, is Senior Faculty at the ‘IHD’, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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