Wider cost-benefit analysis will determine if WFH is a success

MONDAY, 4 MAY 2020 Rama Bijapurkar, Smita Affinawal NEW DELHI.

Wider cost-benefit analysis will determine if WFH is a success

The current narrative around WFH does not accommodate diverse income groups and women workers.

The bandwagon of opinion that work-from-home is the amrit (nectar of immortality) that the covid manthan (churning) has yielded is growing and speeding down an implementation path that is long on profit-and-loss benefit and short on people-centricity. Corporates love the cost savings, but a fuller analysis will show that it is a double-edged sword to be handled with care, quickly accruing quantifiable savings for companies, but risking slowly accumulating costs for employees and organizations, perhaps not quantifiable early on but not un-measurable. Implement work from home (WFH) by all means, but after data-driven weighing of costs and benefits all around. We would like to see an equivalent level of discussion on the people dimension as we are seeing on cost savings.

Decision-makers, likely older, with older children, better paid, hence living in larger houses with better quality household help, are deciding on WFH from their own contexts, oblivious of employee contexts of smaller homes shared by more family members now also having to double as work spaces, small children demanding attention when they see a parent, and lower quality household help. As for it being a working woman's dream, ask them and you will find not all women can manage expected productivity and WFH — disturbing her is the default option if she is at home (surprising how problems resolve themselves when you are at the office!)

People-centricity requires data from the other side and acceptance that there are segments and, so, a one-size policy doesn't fit all. Implicitly assuming that something is workable because it works for the five people who said it to me, or for the mancom, or even worse, that if it has worked in crisis times, it must work all the time, is irresponsible.

So, before jumping to the "WFH saves rental cost and delights employees" conclusion and rushing to implement, we suggest a pause to get data on people's home environments, family demographics, the pain points of WFH and, even more simply, an anonymous employee vote on the matter. Also needed is for HR to develop sound conceptual models on what improves or hampers WFH productivity based on the nature of work of employees in different grades and in different roles and to devise a whole new way of managing productivity.

Neuroscience shows that the chemical balance of the brain shifts when in isolation leading to lower feelings of psychological safety, affecting creativity and openness to change. Social interactions have more to them than video meeting the way they are currently done. Neuroscience theory of "mirror neurons" suggests positive benefits of social interaction for teamwork, another holy grail of business leaders (The Star Factor, William Seidman et al and The Tell Tale Brain, V.S. Ramachandran).

Finally, it is also a business leader's responsibility to think about the implicit contract that employers have with employees – to provide a "work place" that is geared to "work needs" (where you do not do meetings with your spouse, mother-in-law or toddler in attendance ). Also, "work identity" is a very strong builder of self esteem and social standing, especially in India. That's why money was spent in the first place on well-designed offices in specific locations that people feel proud to go to. WFH takes these away. Signalling caring for employees cannot be done while ignoring what WFH of the chief wage-earner does to the very structure of the family dynamics.

Rama Bijapurkar is an independent market strategy consultant, and Smita Affinwalla is founder of Illuminos HR Consulting.