A robust ecosystem for remote work

A robust ecosystem for remote work

Representative image. Credit: Pixabay Photo

Irrespective of which side of the debate you are, you now know that most people will prefer to work from home (WFH) --wholly or partly--even after the pandemic. Not just
the employees, many employers, too have begun to see both the value and inevitability of WFH.

WFH already promises cost savings for employers and flexibility for employees. But look at the big picture: as more people work away from centralised offices,   we will see numerous benefits: urban decongestion, reduction in CO2 emissions, growth of rural economies as skilled people return to the small towns, and access to untapped talent pools, (think of rural women, senior citizens, etc.).

Above all, remote work options will migrate work to labour instead of migrating labour to work-- at least for several millions of white-collar and clerical and knowledge workers.

But, are we ready, as a nation, to harness the benefits of large-scale remote work? Clearly no. WFH has been at best, emergency response to the Covid-19 crisis. Both our sense of triumph and trepidation over WFH stem from perpetuating what was essentially the classic jugaad around sending desktops to homes, replicating office work over painfully long zoom calls, and throwing virtual parties. WFH often raises the images of a young working couple with school-age children, aged parents, two bedrooms, patchy internet, trying to join zoom calls via makeshift arrangements from cramped homes. On the other side, there is an equally hassled set of managers attempting to ‘extract’ work (as the popular expression goes) from the discomfort of distance.

All this happens when suddenly millions of people are pushed into WFH -without any thoughtful preparation. This is unsustainable. We need holistic and integrated thinking around making remote work, work.

Remember, we took over 300 years to hone and evolve the present office-based work system. Ever since the first formal office of the western world- the Royal admiralty office in 1726--was set up in London, we have built a whole ecosystem for offices. The current management processes, organization designs, personal and public transportation models, parking lots, ergonomic furniture, food courts, sleeping pods, and massage chairs make office work efficient. 

What have we done to enable remote work? If we have to give a chance to the new opportunity of working from anywhere: from homes, neighbourhood co-working spaces, or staycation spots, we must build a robust ecosystem with thoughtful and evidence-based interventions around four factors by key actors like the  Centre, States, Industry bodies and firms.

The Center must enable universal access to high-speed and reliable internet, invest in robust ICT infrastructure, and advance the goals of digital India not merely to support- e-commerce but encourage e-work alias remote work. It is time to push for making access to ‘always- on’ internet a basic right of citizens. We must leapfrog and bridge the ‘digital divide.’ We should also study laws like the Telework Enhancement Act (2010) of the US and build enabling legal frameworks to promote and protect remote work.

The state governments should build and leverage a remote work ecosystem in small villages and towns and connect rural youth, women, and underprivileged sections to mainstream employment. It is time India’s municipal commissioners and mayors compete to attract talent to their towns away from the big cities like the Tulsa remote initiative in the US where city workers are incentivized to move back to small towns. 

Employers need to reimagine many of their HR and organization systems to enable remote work. Industry bodies should think of evolving a full-suite of handbooks, tool kits, and training programs to help employers, especially SMEs, adopt and leverage ‘remote work’ not only as a cost-saving device but also as a talent tapping tool.

Remote work can be a powerful transformational tool only if companies can usher in more distributed organization models and bury traditional hierarchies. Managing a remote workforce will demand a massive mindset shift and a trust-based inclusive culture. Firms must not underestimate this tectonic shift.

(The writer is Professor of Organizational Behavior & Human Capital at Indian School of Business)