One could argue that one of the most catastrophic events of our time – COVID-19 – practically birthed new life in various ways.

Do you remember the pictures from all over the world of pumas, mountain goats, and snow leopards coming out from their jungled retreats to residential areas? In India, our fellow countrymen in Kolkata spotted dolphins – normally seen at ghats way outside the city – at various ghats in town. Locals in Hyderabad clicked pictures excitedly as a leopard lay on a city road.

We felt the impact of an unforeseen lack of human activity on the environment too: for some time, we breathed clean air and drank clean water, and our overburdened ears got a break from constant noise.

It may be difficult to imagine these blissful scenes and their impact – after all, humans are not known to be affected by situations that are not directly visible or tangible. But we all can definitely relate to an impact that we saw much closer to home.

The emergence of remote work, or work from home (WFH).

I began working remotely in 2017, much before the pandemic. But that arrangement came about only because I had just shifted from a metro to a smaller town and wasn’t having much luck finding a suitable career opportunity locally. It was, in no way, an intentional choice. While searching for jobs online, I came across just two or three companies that were offering WFH opportunities. It’s been more than seven years now that I have been working remotely – and today, I, like most of my peers, have the privilege of choosing whether we want to WFH or work from office (WFO).

India embraces a new normal

A working style that was being practised in very few organizations before the pandemic suddenly became the new normal in March 2020 as companies shut down their offices. Unsurprisingly, people were caught off guard. My then employer, which had allowed people to choose between WFH and WFO before the pandemic, implemented WFH for everyone. Those of us who had been working remotely from before supported our WFO teammates during the transition – mostly by listening to rants of frustration and annoyance. Similar scenes played out in most offices around the country.

But two years later, 82% respondents in a study published in the Times of India enthusiastically chose WFH over WFO. Again, not surprising. WFH does have many benefits for employees: increased autonomy in daily life, work-life balance, reduced commuting time, increased savings, location independence, and, in general, higher levels of happiness.

One group that has benefitted greatly from the WFH trend is people living in non-metros. Before the pandemic, metros and “boomtowns” (emerging large markets with fast growth in disposable income) recorded high migration of youths from smaller towns, who packed their bags in search of promising career opportunities. Over the years, this put excessive pressure on a few cities, and the result was overcrowding, traffic, high pollution levels, and rising cost of living. As companies went remote, many people went back to their hometowns to enjoy a slower pace of life.

When it comes to global WFH, India has a distinct advantage. The fact that India has long been a global outsourcing hub for tech talent helped pick up the pace with which people and companies adopted WFH. While the world has looked to our country for tech talent for years, the pandemic forced companies globally to quickly implement the infrastructure required for employees to work remotely. And once they were prepared to hire remotely, their focus on India increased. As of December 2023, the cost of living in India was almost 65% less than that in the US, and companies could save 60–80% of costs when hiring remote workers in India. Plus, having workers in India (or Asia) meant companies could ensure around-the-clock coverage for their businesses. The thousands of India-based remote tech vacancies on LinkedIn are a testament to this trend.

Productivity: The anti-WFH argument

The benefits of WFH for companies, both in India and outside, have been widely acknowledged. Possibly the strongest reason for employers to adopt WFH is to access a larger talent pool and attract and retain employees. Companies can also cut down significantly on overhead costs: a remote employer doesn’t have to spend on rent, office supplies, snacks, or coffee. Those seeking to build a socially conscious brand can implement a WFH model to reduce their carbon footprint.

But one issue that has led to fiery debates is productivity: are employees more or less productive when working remotely? There are many factors that enhance productivity for WFH employees. First, in remote settings, people generally have some scope to decide their working hours, enabling companies to tap into their workers’ most creative phase. Second, many people function optimally in an environment of peace and quiet, devoid of distractions, and noisy offices full of bantering colleagues and ringing phones hardly provide such an ambience. Third, employees redirect the time otherwise spent in dressing up and commute to actually working, leading to longer working times than WFO. Finally, employees are likely to take fewer leaves, as they can adjust their work schedules to complete minor chores – going to the bank, doing some quick grocery shopping, and other similar tasks – and no longer need full days off work for these chores.

Of course, nothing at all, including WFH, is universally beneficial. Most complaints about WFH that I have heard first-hand in my current and previous companies are from women, especially those who serve as the primary caretakers at home and have young children. During the transition from WFO to WFH in early 2020, schools closed down too, and women who had traditionally worked outside home while largely taking care of the household found themselves juggling multiple aspects simultaneously. No one can question the challenge involved in taking care of household chores and young kids, full of energy and suddenly locked inside home, WHILE completing office tasks. While schools reopened long ago, the transition period set expectations for the future: for many women, the new normal is completing office work at home, doing household chores, and taking care of children, all at once. Such situations are bound to take a toll on a person and impact productivity.

Another group that has arguably faced challenges in maximising productivity in a WFH arrangement is freshers and early-career professionals. High productivity invariably requires coordination with colleagues, and one can gain several insights and lessons from ad hoc conversations with peers and seniors. Mid- or higher-level professionals find it relatively easy to extend their communication and collaboration skills to the online world after they have spent a few years developing these skills in a WFO setting. However, beginners who have had minimal (or no) experience in collaboration expectedly struggle to develop these skills while working remotely from the start of their career.

Are we asking the right questions?

The better the question, the clearer the answer. It is crucial that we ask the right questions when assessing the pros and cons of any issue. Which brings us to this: is productivity the right metric to assess the efficiency of WFH?

The definition of “productivity” varies by entity. Does productivity mean number of logged working hours? Lines of code?  Or whether an employee attends all meetings? In the absence of a universally accepted definition, surveys measuring productivity also use different methodologies: some have focused on working time as captured by monitoring software on company devices, while others simply asked respondents their thoughts about their productivity in a WFH setting. Moreover, the inclusion of a third option in most surveys – a hybrid mode, which is the norm for many employees today – fails to clearly distinguish between the productivity levels in a WFH vs WFO mode.

Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many studies on WFH vs WFO present contradictory findings: a Stanford study found that a fully remote arrangement led to a 10%-20% decrease in productivity, while a study reported by Harvard Business Review concluded that employers should let employees work remotely to increase productivity.

The way ahead

In the post-pandemic era, companies have increasingly made attempts to get employees back into the office – in contrast to employees, many of whom have chosen to resign rather than return to a WFO setting. One main reason cited for a push to return to office is the significant investments that corporates make, or have already made, in real estate – benefiting other companies. One could argue that removing thousands or millions of dollars/rupees from the business ecosystem would have major impacts on the economy.

Other reasons include a resistance to move away from traditional methods – especially as the top leadership in most companies, the decision makers, have been working in WFO settings since decades – and the continuing belief that being near the leadership will facilitate career growth and promotions.

However, often, what works out ideally for one party may not be optimal for another. When deciding what is the “right” choice between WFH vs WFO, we need to consider their pros and cons for both employers and employees.

Companies must realise that in the current age of awareness, employees’ definition of “job satisfaction” has moved away from only earning a high salary. Professionals today desire a healthy work–life balance; respect, appreciation, and trust from managers and leaders; and flexibility, among others. A key to employee retention is to ensure workers are provided as many benefits as possible, without impacting business needs. The fact that WFH is known to help companies cut costs significantly can be an additional reason to embrace WFH. But employers must also keep in mind that one size doesn’t fit all. While many workers prefer WFH, there are others who choose to go to the office, especially if their home environment isn’t conducive to work.

In an ideal world, companies would offer employees a choice – whether they wish to WFH, WFO, or split their time between home and office. Setting up the appropriate infrastructure to allow this flexibility – owning or leasing office spaces, leasing co-working spaces, helping employees set up a home office – would definitely create expenses, but the returns over the years, including happier employees and higher retention rates, would greatly boost companies’ ability to thrive in the long term. After all, sustained success over quick profits is the foundation of a successful business strategy.