The world faced unprecedented times in the last two years amid the disruptive Covid pandemic, but now the situation is slowly returning to normalcy. It was no different for the business sector. However, with most of the world beginning to reopen and resume usual activities, several firms are considering following suit.
As the Covid-led restrictions ease, many companies have started re-opening their offices for a majority of the staff, while others are yet to do so.
People Matters spoke to HR leaders to explore the challenges that come with remote work models and ascertain if it is time yet for companies to end work-from-home (WFH). Responses were mixed.
Here's how some identified the benefits, challenges, and shared their way ahead.
Challenges HR/business leaders face with WFH
Time for people to come back to the office?
There is no doubt that WFH has provided tremendous flexibility to run one’s professional and personal life the way it suits them. Many have adapted to this mode of working and find it more convenient since they now are more connected and can spend quality time with their family. Individuals and their families have evolved their work and lifestyle to suit the current status quo. But, this may have its own price too.
“.. we have repeatedly seen that unless boundaries are drawn to manage these two aspects of our lives, one flows into another, and an imbalance gets created. This is when mental well-being starts to impact, and the pandemic has certainly brought employees’ mental health issues to the forefront. We all need breaks, change of context, and while WFH has increased productivity and performance, it doesn’t ease our mental well-being.
"We are all social beings and meeting others, working with them, change of surroundings or context energizes and rejuvenates us. It makes us more creative towards our work and life and opens new avenues of learning from each other. When employees are working in an office work environment, one can understand their pulse, emotions, strengths, and areas of opportunity, which in a virtual medium, is largely restricted,” says Rai.
WFH cannot end since the pandemic hasn’t gone yet completely, but the hybrid work model is probably the best way forward, say leaders.
“As countries have started lifting the COVID lockdowns, companies have started experimenting and implementing numerous hybrid work arrangements that deem fit for their employees. In between the waves, we experience the low-lying phases of the pandemic, and this is where we have the opportunity to return to work in the office. This opportunity is to do what we can’t during WFH, such as meeting our fellow colleagues and leaders, bonding with them, and building collaborative relationships like we used to do earlier.
"Moreover, experiencing operating from office space, working face-to-face with our colleagues, thereby, reducing turnaround time and efforts to accomplish daily tasks are imperative. Therefore, in a hybrid model, yes, it is now time for people to come back to office and make use of the subsided phases of the pandemic,” adds Rai.
Krishna Muniramaiah, Head of HR, Asia Pacific, Altimetrik, says: “With work from home, employees feel they are missing out on the opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues and be a part of the community where they spend more than 1/3rd of their day."
He also notes that mental health issues "have increased with this mode, as some feel lonely and isolated".
With this, the work-life balance has had an impact on people WFH. There are no clear boundaries with this mode of working, adding to the concerns of WFH,” he says, adding that the company is evolving into a hybrid working model, where employees will have a choice of working from their home, office, or any of their satellite locations.
Singh says that in their kind of industry, which relies on collaboration between different work disciplines in a project taskforce set up, work from the office gives the best results.
“Team bonding, enabling people to relax and have fun in a high-pressure work context is not possible in WFH mode. Working from the office does not require making a Teams call or a phone call for a simple query which otherwise can be resolved quickly when people huddle together. These easy problem-solving techniques are not possible in WFH. As a result, conflict resolution takes much longer, draining energy.
"WFH also extends and consumes the personal time of the employees. People feel more stressed doing the balancing act juggling between personal and professional commitments without a break and merging of boundaries between work and personal life. Due to this, the work – life balance has gone askew and there are more complaints of burnout,” she says.
“While WFH will remain prevalent and we should offer the advantage of the same where it makes sense, bringing employees back to office has definite business advantage. Moving to a hybrid method of working where we are able to combine both advantages of work from the office (WFO) and WFH (where it is needed), will be the best way forward,” she adds.
KS Prashant, Managing Director, IDeaS Revenue Solutions, India, says teams flourish when the members feed off one another.
“Effective communication becomes very important. I would like to look over my shoulder to my colleague to get the answer to a question. An asynchronous method over a virtual channel inserts an inherent lag thus impacting productivity. There is a lot to be gained through serendipitous professional discussions which provide a platform for dissemination of the company’s context.
"While business goals continue to define objectives, the safety and well-being of employees and their families are equally important. With both these considerations, it is time for both companies and individuals to move away from full remote towards a sweet spot that lies in between. Being flexible and innovative with the position of that sweet spot would now be the 'new normal',” he says.
Are employees ready to go back to the office?
Employee reactions are always a mixed bag. Leaders say while some employees would always want to come back to the office, some would like to operate in a hybrid model, and others would prefer to continue working from home.
“All of this is usually connected to employees’ personal life that determine their interest in coming to office. As an example, usually employees with little children but without family support are more likely to ask for work-from-home than others who do have a family support system. Likewise, employees who are taking care of elderly parents, requiring constant medical attention, are likely to ask for work-from-home on a more regular basis than others,” says Rai.
However, Singh says the general feedback that they have received from employees is that they want to come back to the office and that they missed the connect with their colleagues.
“Another contributing factor was also the fatigue resulting from online meetings and bringing out a proper demarcation between work and home life. Therefore, the reactions were quite welcoming, and employees came in with the readiness to follow all the guidelines,” she adds.
“Our recent surveys indicate mixed responses from our employees on the option of getting back to the office. Some of the employees have adapted to the new way of working from home and are willing to continue with this model, while some are eager to get back to work. Another set of employees are opting to work from the office for a couple of days a week,” says Muniramaiah.
“With the evolving needs of our employees, we are restructuring the way we work and evolving our policies to this changing atmosphere. We are also creating satellite offices in Tier 2 cities across India to be present near their home location where they are in position to enjoy work as well as spend quality time with their family,” he adds.
According to a survey by NASSCOM, 50% of the IT workforce of India are likely to return to offices and work for up to three days a week. Moreover, the junior and senior management are keener to return to their respective workplace than the middle management. The dynamics are evolving at an unprecedented rate, and while hybrid and remote work were seen as the future of work, slowly and steadily, companies are calling their employees back to office to work.
Most companies maintain that work from home or office is voluntary, though in some mandatory client work situations, it could be otherwise. However, the hybrid model of work, which helps in maintaining a good balance between WFH and WFO is definitely becoming the preferred avenue for the future.
“WFH, at this point in time cannot go away completely as neither the pandemic is over, nor do we know when it will be completely erased out. Therefore, flexibility to teams and employees in choosing where they’d like to work is important today,” says Rai.