When Governments around the world mandated ‘shelter in place’ or lockdowns, enterprises across various industries put on their thinking hats to conduct business remotely.
Last year, all across the world, people struggled to deal with a sweeping change – “work from home’. For us though, it was work as usual. After all, at that point, our “virtual network” had been functioning well and thriving for over a decade! In fact, niiti consulting’s remote work model was inspired by my own professional career journey, and another organisation I had the good fortune of knowing in the UK called Value Web.
In the year 1996, I had to attempt to work remote for personal reasons. I was still a newbie, with just two years of work experience. At that time “work from home” policy was virtually non-existent anywhere in the world, and way before affordable, high-speed internet connections and expansive virtual storage drives became ubiquitous. I recall that my request to the multinational company I was working at, to allow me to work remote at least a few days a month met with many raised eyebrows and surprise from the leadership and barely concealed scepticism from my colleagues. After all, co-location was the default design of work space. It didn’t help that the sector I was in had women in the minority and my role was very public facing. So in addition to scepticism around the workability of the arrangement, my gender played a big role in raising eyebrows higher than usual! But I was given the opportunity, initially as a six-month test, and I grabbed it, determined to make it work. In over quarter of a century, I have worked from home for at least half that time, and I have never forgotten how that small leap of faith early in my career shaped me and contributed to my professional success. And I had vowed then that if I ever had the opportunity to set up my own enterprise, I will never let geography come in the way!
Since the 2000s, tele work (working remotely) started to be found in pockets, especially in the information technology industry. Though even there, the preference was for employees to come to common work locations, making office spaces so inviting that employees preferred to spend longer hours there! I had the opportunity to meet with and work with members of this network called Value Web around 2006, where highly qualified and experienced members of the network from around the globe came together for projects and worked largely remotely. It was an amazing experience to get to know how they functioned. But through the first two decades of the new millennium, virtual working was still considered unsustainable, though growth in technology had made it more conducive than ever!
[box type=”info” align=”” class=”” width=””]“Price Waterhouse Coopers reports 39% of companies, before shelter-in-place, allowing their employees to work from home at least one day a week, versus a projected 55% granting this same flexibility after the pandemic.
41% of workers said they wished to remain fully remote.” – PWC Remote Work Survey 2021
“As many as 83% of workers expressed the desire to be able to work from home at least one day a week.” – Report by Global Workplace Analytics.[/box]
In 2020 though, with the global pandemic, the tables turned. When governments around the world mandated ‘shelter in place’ or lockdowns, enterprises across various industries put on their thinking hats to conduct business remotely.
The magic of virtual workspaces – for employees and enterprises
My team at niiti consulting and I, watched with some bemusement as the larger working population discovered virtual work. Without the limitations of a daily commute and a fixed ‘log in, log off’ time, most knowledge workers found the resultant freedom equally liberating and confusing. Potentially, one could work from any location with a reliable Internet connection. A virtual workspace deemphasised hierarchy, as the perks of a corner office, club membership etc. for ‘seniors’ were no longer as ‘in the face’ as they were pre-pandemic.
Various other organisations experienced just what we had over the years – virtual work enabled inclusion. Whether it was a new mother or a person with disability or even someone struggling with navigating hours of traffic, physical constraints were no more limitations, but just drivers to find innovative solutions or work arounds. Enterprises had greater access to talent since geography or location was no longer a constraint and witnessed better productivity and diversity in many cases.
Virtual working comes with its own set of unique challenges, though, which people experienced first-hand in the last two years. People missed the bonding with colleagues over coffee breaks, the camaraderie that is built only with in person social interactions, and most importantly their own private professional workspace. In many cases, the absence of a clear ‘end of work day’ led to overwork and burnout in some individuals. So much that many looked forward to offices opening up and have welcomed even navigating through slow moving traffic for hours!
As the pandemic eases off, some organisations are considering getting their employees back in physical offices. Large organisations, especially in India, are expecting almost 80 per cent of their employees back in office in early 2022. This is far from a trend though. A year and half into the pandemic, both employees and employers have acknowledged that remote work is here to stay (see Box).
The secret sauce for remote work – beyond ‘enabling technology’
niiti’s network was built on the virtual office paradigm, with members working together despite being physically located in places scattered across the country and the globe. Two key ingredients in our secret sauce are the empowerment that our network members feel, and the sense of purpose that we share. In our case, technology is just one of the enablers and in our experience a culture of trust is the back bone of any virtual enterprise. While policies and systems are important to ensure discipline, it is ownership and commitment that makes virtual working more productive, for both the enterprise and the employee in question.
What has worked for niiti is our core belief that any committed individual wants to be a best version of themselves professionally, and the primary task of a virtual organisation is to create systems that empower them to do just that. This can be built through creating spaces and opportunities for open and proactive communication and transparent access to resources and information within team members. I have also personally experienced that in person interactions at regular intervals are equally important for nurturing this culture of trust.
I do believe that any enterprise can build their virtual workplaces on these principles. It will be interesting to see how enterprises adapt themselves to it even as we witness a large-scale shift towards virtual and hybrid work spaces, across sectors and roles.
[author title=”” image=”https://dev.et-insights.com/dev/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/meena-pic-off-e1634122765418.jpg”][/author][author title=”Meena Vaidyanathan” image=”http://”]Meena Vaidyanathan is the founder of niiti consulting. She has led many projects on sectoral research, grassroots livelihood strategies and impact evaluation. Meena teaches marketing and sustainability at several Universities, is a member of the Advisory Council of the Mahatma Gandhi National Fellowship (MGNF) program at IIM Udaipur, and is an Advisor on the Indian Principals Network. [/author]