As someone who has been part of the IT industry for more than a decade and a half I can tell you with a fair degree of confidence that Work from Home (WFH) has been around since eternity. The fact of the matter is that post covid it became tied up with productivity during the discourse where companies started to call back employees back to offices after a prolonged period of remote work.  

Pre covid work from home

Before covid entry level employees or junior employees were not allowed to work from home at all. Such employees were expected to come everyday to the office and work on a desktop that was assigned to them at their respective work station. The rationale behind such a decision was that employees out of college or just a couple of years out of college lacked the discipline and self motivation to work uninterrupted from home . Another major reason was that these folks were also part of teams which required a high level of collaboration ,guidance and handholding during their initial days. Coming to office facilitated such requirements.

As for the senior folks they were expected to be mature enough to effectively manage their time. Also people with niche skills in the industry more often had the leverage of bargaining permanent work from home from their employers. Managers were also fine with this arrangement because the majority of their folks were working from the office. Permanent work from home was very rare. I would even go to the extent of saying that the jr folks used to aspire for occasional work from home.

Personally I remember being in awe of my seniors in my team who could occasionally work from home . I would be terribly homesick and would have loved to work from home for a week in atleast once in 2 months because I was based in Mumbai. Going home would happen once in a year or at best twice. Because it doesn’t make sense to travel 50+ hours on the whole if you are not staying at home for at least 8 days. Work from home was so much of a big deal that after settling into my new role I spent a week working from my hometown just for the heck of it. I was lucky that my hometown was a tier 2 city with decent connectivity. But for folks who live  in the remote parts of the country work from their hometown was not an option due to poor connectivity.

Work from home during covid

First of all, working from home during covid was not a choice but rather a necessity. You can never prepare for a pandemic, period . The companies were forced to make such a drastic change because they had no other option to keep their businesses running. This arrangement worked differently for the varied age groups.

Category 1 :- Freshers- Employees with 0-2 years of experience  joining during the pandemic

This age group was by far the most impacted during this period. I mean just imagine you join a new organisation / profession and you are in touch with only  a handful of people. You have no idea about the culture of the organisation. Your onboarding and training are done fully remote by these very few people.

No company had a remote onboarding process until then and they had to improvise on the go. As a result there were a lot of gaps when it came to training . This was mostly the job of the HR team . Once assigned to a team Managers already had a lot on their plate and were hard pressed for time to spend time with the new member. This led to the new joinees getting isolated and even more social exclusion started affecting their mental health. Everyone else in the team is just working on their individual tasks.

This group once work from office was implemented took a lot of time to make up for the gaps that occurred during the training and onboarding processes. Primarily the companies focussed on this category when they were insisting everyone to come back to office . Because interacting with peers and seniors will fasten their learning

Category 2  :- slightly experienced- 0-2 years of experience who are switching to remote work after spending time in office for a minimum of 6 months

This category had to undergo a lot of hardships initially because they had to switch from their place of work to their hometowns. They also suffered a lot because they were stuck away from their homes in new areas because of the travel ban. Once they reached home they were a relieved lot.

After spending a couple of months this group started to get restless because they found it emotionally difficult to live with their parents. They missed their work colleagues who also doubled up as their friends. The new found freedom with financial stability was taken away from them in a jiffy and this suffocated them.

Category 3 :- heavily experienced-employees with 3-7 years of experience

This lot was already young adults who were happiest when work from home was implemented for the first time. But their dream soon turned into a nightmare when they found it difficult to adjust with their parents. Having spent many years away from their parents they had possibly outgrown them and staying under the same roof as your parents started to get suffocating.

Same applies to young couples. This was like a second honeymoon for them and they enjoyed the undivided attention of each other. However, over a prolonged period of time a lot of friction was created between them and their relationships were getting strained.

This group was bursting in its seams to get out and their disposable income also increased manifold because there was nothing to spend your money on . That is the reason why the moment there were some relaxations on travel this group took work from ‘home’ to work from ‘anywhere’. This was also the start of productivity issues creeping up because let us face it context switching is not something that comes naturally owing to the fact that we have grown up in conservative households.

Category 4 :- seasoned professionals -employees with 8 + years of experience

The whole life became topsy turvy for this group because most of them had kid/s who were stuck with them with no school. The entire day was a ‘workday’ for them. You either did ‘office’ work or   ‘home’ work . No maids meant domestic work also came on top of this. Online classes for kids exacerbated the scene because you also had to play technical support to your kids. Not to say in one shot this also increased to the screen time of the kids exponentially leading to health issues. Life was a constant circus juggling between all these tasks.

If you were lucky enough to land up in your parents home or parents in laws home then there was some respite for you. But gradually the older generation also became cranky because they had a lot on their plate. So you got caught between two generations and it was emotionally draining.   To overcome this once things slowly started turning to normal rather than travel and risk your kids health they started to invest in hobbies and fitness. Who can forget the ‘dalgona coffee’ challenge. Time spent on commuting was spent elsewhere.

Critical analysis : WFO vis a vis productivity

Now all these categories were together called back to office and naturally had different issues.  

Freshers were the happiest of the lot because they got the first taste of working from the office for the very first time.
Slightly experienced welcomed the Work from Office diktat with open arms because they wanted their freedom back and moved away from their parents home.
Heavily experienced employees were sulking because they lost the flexibility to work from ‘anywhere’. If you got bored from working in one place you could always switch. This freedom of choice was taken away  
Seasoned professionals took it really hard they had already embraced the remote work culture and this disturbed their set routines

Right at the onset itself I had suggested that organisations were forced to roll out the work from home arrangement during the pandemic. Once the situation eased a bit organisations wanted the employees to come back to office. Unfortunately by then the employees had become really comfortable with the WFH milieu. The reasons could be manifold: commuting time was a major one, many employees had left the metros for their hometowns and cost of living had come down considerably, more time with the family , more time to spend on your hobbies, fitness etc were some other major reasons.

Ultimately what happened was that only the freshers and slightly experienced ones turned up in office. But the experienced and seasoned professionals were not taking any of it . So the very benefit of WFO for the former group was negated because the latter didn’t turn up in office. Even worse the ones that turned up in office were disillusioned because they gained nothing. Moonlighting also made its entry in this juncture and things started going downhill for the WFH supporters.

This is how a correlation between WFO and productivity gradually began taking shape. The experienced and seasoned professionals were anyways fairly self disciplined and motivated but the freshers and slightly experienced  were losing out on learning. Their productivity plummeted .  

Managers who were sidelined since the pandemic saw a window of opportunity and pushed this narrative forward. A lot of the managers who had relied on hard power and micromanagement were the ones who wanted the employees back to office. In a WFH set up it is difficult to micromanage and wield your authority because your team doesn’t inhabit the same physical space. This group also saw this as an existential crisis to their tribe if WFH continued indefinitely. I would even go to the extent of saying that their ego was hurt as well because they couldn’t exercise their power.  

Seasoned managers had adapted to the WFH set up using soft power and finding innovative ways to collaborate with their teams. A lot of delegation had to happen and handholding was impossible. I mean it is quite easy to give instructions on the office floor but become really challenging when you have to do that 1 to 1 over slack, teams or zoom.

Personally for me even before the pandemic I was quite familiar with the concept of remote work. In the MNC that I previously worked for I was the only guy based out in Mumbai my team was based in Gurgaon. My manager was based in the UK and my client stakeholders were scattered all across the world from Brazil to Australia. Even if I went to the office it didn’t make much of a difference in my day to work. The entire team including the client stakeholders used to visit once per year at the country headquarters in Gurgaon that is it. So personally I didn’t have a tough time managing the team scattered all across Kerala and a few in the neighboring states.    

So what could be the way forward?

 I for one feel that the days of 100% work from office , especially in the IT sector have long gone by. Firstly, for a majority of the folks the work from home was a first time experience and once they experienced the comforts it is difficult to go back. It is akin to tasting sugar for the first time in your life then wanting a taste of that sweetness every now and then. Secondly, the pandemic made a lot of people see their lives in a very different perspective and they now want to have more control of their time to go about their daily business. Thirdly, whether you like it or not WFH gives a lot of flexibility to juggle between work and home especially for the young families. Fourthly, for the young and restless they experienced the unbridled freedom of working from anywhere. Going to new places and living the life of natives  added a lot of colour  to their mundane lives.

I believe that the organisations should adopt a middle ground between WFO or WFH. The same approach may not work for everyone. On a case by case basis let the HR team,the team member and the Manager decide what is best for each of them. Extrinsic motivation will not work like before, for any initiative to succeed the motivation has to come from within. The pandemic gave enough time and enabled everyone to think for themselves as to what is important for you in the life ahead. Life has slowly and rightfully started to take precedence over everything else.