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The Reality Of Remote Work

There are more low-level but practical problems to solve. For example, employees leave the company without returning the laptop and other company-issued devices

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The reality of hybrid and remote work differs from the widely held picture. While everyone appears gung-ho about the Work from Anywhere (WFX) trend, leadership everywhere is frustrated. Over the last month, I have been travelling, meeting scores of top leaders from very large organisations. 

They are not used to working from their bedrooms, and the two-days-a-week of office is not working for them. Offices are empty, and their reportees don’t turn up for meetings. Outside of the office, the world looks normal. In London, only a few of every 1,000 people on the streets are wearing masks. And you can be sure a majority of those are Japanese tourists. These divergent scenarios hide a complex truth. 

Let me first explain with a personal example from our own company. As a technology provider to global organisations, we have regular business visitors. 

They come to meet our teams, reassure themselves of the type of facilities and infrastructure we have, get a sense of our work ethic and see if their teams back home in London or Adelaide or Houston can work with us. This is an important aspect of business that cannot be done remotely. We can defer it for a few weeks or months, but it cannot be ignored. 

These visits by existing and potential customers require our teams to be physically present. But, thanks to the pandemic, over 50 per cent of our employees have gone to their hometowns spread across the country. A vast majority of these employees see it as a permanent move. 

Over the last two and a half years, they have become accustomed to operating from their parental homes, and it takes them a day or more to make the trip to the base office in Bangalore or Pune, where they are “officially” employed. I can sense their reluctance to make that trip. 

To understand what was happening, we spoke to nearly 3,000 employees in our organization who support our customers globally from India. We spoke to each one of them personally. As many as 51 per cent said they want to work remotely (read: don’t want to come to the office); 21 per cent said they want to come, but twice a week, and another 20 per cent said they would like to come on a need basis only. Like other organizations, we are unclear if this is permanent or not. 

The uncertainty poses a tricky problem: We cannot redesign and re-invest in our workplaces until there is clarity on how the future of work will unfold. I suspect the WFX trend has nothing more to do with the pandemic but has gathered its own momentum. How far it will go and how long it will take to get there is anyone’s guess. 

In the past few months, we have read about the many advantages of WFX. For businesses, it means lower real estate and utility bills; for employees, it means zero commute time, better work-life balance, and safety to health. But overall, given the long period over which the trend will take discernible shape and permanence, it means WFX is more of a challenge than an opportunity. 

Admittedly, everyone will lead a more fulfilling life if they get more time at home, with friends and family—or even in solitude. And who doesn’t want that? But it saddens me to see that we are unable to deliver the HR services to our employees when they need them the most because of their remote locations. 

As much as we would like to also ensure our colleagues and their families get the best medical facilities and support systems in their hour of need, we are not able to do so as these facilities are not of the same standards in their current location as compared to the urban cities of India. 

The list of challenges that continue to hound us is long. Loyalty is on the wane as there is no effective and reliable model for employee engagement. This is the first time that many managers are dealing with remote teams, and despite the 30-odd months of having to live with this situation, they have not gotten used to it. 

The reason for this is elementary—we have all been trained to work in skill-based, physically close-knit groups. Our responses to problems have been built on the premise of proximity and the reassuring warmth of physical presence. No amount of screen time can replace that.  

There are more low-level but practical problems to solve. For example, employees leave the company without returning the laptop and other company-issued devices. 

We have to follow up across places like Bandrevu and Pitchanur to get them to send back the company assets. I admit, this is a hilarious situation and would make you laugh — but not if the assets belong to your company! 

Businesses have been preoccupied with understanding the impact of WFX on customer and employee experience and employee loyalty and satisfaction. Admittedly, sophisticated solutions are being developed. These will not be cheap and will add to implementation, training, and maintenance costs. In the coming months, we will see the real cost of WFX being estimated more accurately. Brace yourself for a surprise. It will not be cheap. 

Of all the challenges popping up around us, there is one that remains largely invisible and unaddressed. Employees working remotely are being forced to communicate much more with each other and with customers. The volume of communication has gone up several folds. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is adept at communicating, especially using the written word. This is hindering productivity and efficiency. In a recent Harris Poll study conducted in the US called The State of Business Communication, 72 per cent or three out of four business leaders surveyed said, “My team has struggled with communicating effectively over the last year.” 

While we are putting more technology and tools into the hands of employees, rushing to adopt newer workflows, and accessing a more diverse workforce from across the world, we are not doing enough to improve the communication capabilities of employees. 

In the US, the survey revealed that “nearly nine out of ten business leaders have experienced the adverse impact of poor communication at work, including increased costs (45 per cent), missed deadlines or increased time to resolution (39 per cent), and eroded brand credibility or reputation (34 per cent).” The total loss of business attributed to poor communication is estimated at USD 1.2 trillion a year. If investigated, the data for India may be the same or perhaps worse. 

Businesses have always been adept at finding solutions to problems (without problems to solve, there would be no business). It will be interesting to see the answers that emerge to make the world safer without sacrificing employee loyalty, efficiency and convenience. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Pradeep Kar

The author is Microland's Founder, Chairman and Managing Director, setting the foundation for excellence as Microland guides enterprises in adopting nextGen technologies to achieve the highest possible levels of reliability, stability, and predictability.

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