“Working from home” is a sound concept from the commercial sense. It saves real estate costs and investments, fuel reimbursements, expenses on tea, furnishings lunch. A number of cleaners, peons and sundry help can be asked to move on. The list of potential savings is perhaps endless. While there is no alternative during times of a pandemic, of concern is the recent tendency to propagate WFH as a permanent feature or the new normal.
This is a classic example of commercial interest dominating over the softer aspects of the human being as a social animal, of destroying the essence of the human identity. It is not that the employer will benefit in the long-run because the productivity of isolated individuals connected through the computer screen is bound to decline over time. However, short-term interests dominate, in this case immediate profits.
By nature, humans cannot excel without interacting with others. Not just corridor gossip but the overall process of working in a group at office invokes the juices of creativity, coupled with learning experiences. Most of the time colleagues interact not for gossip but to exchange ideas, seek opinions and learn in the process. How many times in our life has a chance conversation with a colleague resulted in unlocking a problem we have grappled with for days.
How many times have we gone to our boss to seek his opinion on an issue? It can be argued that this may be achieved also through remote connectivity but the scope is limited due to bandwidth constraints , the tedious process of calling or e-mailing and a diminished effectiveness because there is no substitute to face-to-face discussions. It is easier to communicate through body-language, through expressions, by walking up to the whiteboard to illustrate or demonstrate a concept and to gauge from reactions how much elaboration is required.
Then there are group brainstorming sessions to spark myriad ideas. Studies of the “learning pyramid” indicate that while group discussions and practical demonstrations lead to 50 per cent and 30 per cent retention respectively, only 10 per cent of what is read and 5 per cent of a lecture are retained. Progressive organizations think differently. Yahoo revoked mobile work privileges since “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.”
In 2018, Facebook and King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (KCCLP) signed a deal for 611,000 sq ft of office space across three buildings at King’s Cross, London of which 42,000 sq ft consists of landscaped roof gardens and terraces to offer uninterrupted views over Central London. It was arguably aimed to foster creativity for teams working in unison. Samsung’s US headquarters was designed to contain vast outdoor areas sandwiched between floors, luring Samsung’s engineers and salespeople to those spaces.
“The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” said Scott Birnbaum, Vice President, Samsung Semiconductor. The new building, according to him, “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.” The emotional quotient is honed by interactions with fellow human beings. While we meet friends at a café or a pub only on weekends or on an occasional evening, we are compelled to visit workplaces every working day. The famous social neurologist, Mathew Lieberman, has rated the need to be social as more fundamental than food or shelter.
Do we not remember the numerous occasions we have pined for support from colleagues when faced with an intemperate boss? Or sorted out a dispute between junior colleagues by making them sit face-toface? Or felt energised by a pat on the back, in the literal sense, from a boss ? Does not a gentle smile from a colleague of the opposite gender start off our day on a positive note? Or winning a table-tennis match at lunch-time? The logical query that is sure to arise is – why then is WFH being propagated so hard recently, more so after the pandemic?
I have already stated that it is to achieve short-term goals – cost reduction – with the need more prominent now that organisations face a bleak recession. Under such conditions, organisations often forget long-term strategic considerations. The 2008 depression is a glorious example, Surely, the honchos were aware that loan-fuelled growth was destined to fail at some point? WFH is also an emblem of the domineering philosophy of the day. On the cusp of an Orwellian dystopia, we have stopped looking at human beings as human beings but cogs in a massive machine to generate profits . WFH beautifully slots into this denouement, reducing Man to an automaton or a Star Wars Droid.
(The writer has worked in senior positions in several multinational companies)