View: WFH started making perfect (business) sense a while ago

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As an employee of a business newspaper, I like to think that I think like an employer. Which means I’m a ninja – which is actually a geisha, but let’s not focus on that part.

For years, I’ve advocated working from home, or WFH. But at the cost of being seen as ‘lonely shirk’, my campaign to get employers to send more and more of their employees to ghar wapsi (without laying them off, that is) has been, which the Harvard Business School calls it a “failure.” . That is, until Covid makes WFH a necessity.

But over the past few months, with Covid easing, and people retaliating as if the latest IMF and World Bank studies that show India’s poverty is falling are a big sham to push sales of European truffles , middle management is back with its Pavlovian response from WTF to the WFH.

Business owners know that bringing employees to work from home saves on office space and rent, not to mention electricity and toilet paper. Employers also know that natural selection has caused office workers to adapt to conditions where the work they are expected to do matters more than the work they actually do. So the sudden minimization of Facebook, the online shopping windows on the mock-up screen as the floor manager passes, and the maximization of the look the Isro engineers wear 140 seconds before takeoff.

Of course, not all jobs allow telecommuting. Drivers, firefighters, food deliverers, pickpockets, professional footballers, galley slaves have no choice. But for many others, the Covid lockdown first provided that necessary push for a good idea to be adopted for the right reasons at the right time. With cases rising again, now is a good time again.

Technologically, WFH started to make perfect (business) sense some time ago. Like an underutilized cooler in a house before the joys of cold beer were discovered, Wi-Fi, cheaper smartphones and computers, OTT communication, cloud-based storage and peer-to-video telephony -peer were making homes ready for WFH before WFH was accepted.

The real problem, of course, is one of perception. Ditzy New-Age terms such as ‘work-life balance’ and ‘flexi-work’, sounding like slacking, have made employers more wary of the WFH than the EPF. Visions of employees binge-watching “Succession” episodes, having shots of vodka before passing out on the couch, or doing household chores have employers seeing the WFH as a sort of horse Hippie Trojan that Steve Jobs allegedly sent to Microsoft employees.

And yet, WFH works, and works better than office work. A 2015 Stanford University study, “Does Working From Home Work?” used the results of a two-year telecommuting experiment at a Chinese travel agency (ironically, yes) to find that telecommuting led to an increase in productivity “equivalent to a full day’s work.” Unlike amateur officers – ogees – who tend to waste time and mental space, WFHers use work time much better, are much less distracted, take shorter breaks and take less free time. The travel agency also saved nearly $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing office space.

Of course, many of our employers – especially those who are ogees themselves – will say “But this will destroy the working culture of the company!”. They wouldn’t sound too different from our computer-averse Communists of the 1980s, that bogey imperialist (by now they would have called him ‘fascist’) who were to turn India into a jobless middle-class wasteland.

This time around, the WFH is offering far better conditions for the worker than when schools were closed and spoiled brat kids were running around the houses, and when the wali mausi washing machine wasn’t there to turn the button on your washing machine. Again, employers have started counting their chickens (you may chuckle).

Working from home wasn’t built in a day. The last two years have seen serious beta testing by the WFH. So, employers around the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but quantitatively and qualitatively superior work from your remotebots.

[A version of this column was published in ToI on April 19, 2020 during lockdown. Just goes to show the case for WFH remains strong.]

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