Opinion | Yes, Prime Minister: Working from home is not a good idea for business after all
For a country like India, with its unfulfilled aspirations, WFH is a luxury it can’t afford
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advised his colleagues in the Union council of ministers that they should reach office on time and avoid working from home to set an example for others.
My dad worked for a public sector undertaking that had a 48-hour work week and six working days. That seemed to be the norm for most enterprises in India then. At IIT, I first experienced a five-day week, which continued into IIM. Educational institutes in India that were set up with some kind of a foreign collaboration brought in practices that were prevalent in the western world.
When multinational corporations (MNCs) began setting up shop in India in a big way, a five-day working week began to take root. MNCs also introduced concepts like work-from-home (WFH). Many good ideas often end up with a bad reputation because of misuse. Over a period of time, WFH too acquired this reputation. Even large companies with progressive work practices, like Yahoo! and IBM, after years of experimentation decided to minimize working from home. Marissa Meyer of Yahoo! was the first to bell this holy cow of WFH and call out the misuse and financial damage it was causing. Obviously she didn’t win popularity points for this. It is unfortunate that individuals with special constraints or whose roles could be effectively performed from home had to suffer as a result of this. However, most companies continue to extend WFH selectively.
Most startups too operate with a five-day work week, but the common misconception is that startups overwork their employees. I have been with hyper-growth startups for the last 17 years and can vouch that this isn’t true. There certainly are phases in the life of a startup when it is necessary for teams to put in those really long hours, but that is the nature of the startup beast. A startup, by definition, is a rapidly changing entity, with things coming off from time to time that need focused attention to fix. Not everyone may like a startup environment but then they have a choice not to be a part of one. But wanting an MNC salary and lifestyle with a startup tag is a bit of a hypocrisy.
The PM is a man in a hurry and India is a startup nation. The PM’s diktat makes total sense to me. India is a youthful nation with severe under-employment. Many of the problems that confront India at this point of time are seemingly impossible to solve. They need concerted effort and some bold steps both of which need some serious debate, discussion and action. Isolation of the home is not the best place for this to happen.
For European countries, like, say, France, which have attained prosperity and have an ageing population, working from home and fewer working hours in a day is a real option. Not for a country like India with yet unfulfilled aspirations. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.
In my own experience, I have found that an unbridled work-from-home policy results in misuse over a period of time, unless you keep a watch and have people in your team who you can trust completely. Further, work that requires face-to-face collaboration between teams suffers if some of team members opt for WFH. Having said this, all companies I have been a part of allowed WFH selectively.
Having said this, job roles that do not require any face time or collaboration with other teams may be performed reasonably effectively from home. But there is bound to be slacking after a while unless the manager keeps a watchful eye. I have seen individuals at all levels misuse this option, especially if the manager is not watchful.
We were interviewing a candidate for the role of COO at TaxiForSure and everything went well until the candidate began asking questions like “can I work from home" and “what are the working hours". TaxiForSure was in hyper-growth mode and who, in his right senses, would be worried about these issues. At this point, we realized he was the wrong candidate for the job.
India is a startup nation with many unsolved problems. There needs to be a sense of urgency in addressing these pressing problems in the same spirit with which startups hustle to get off the ground. The PM’s advice to his ministers makes complete sense.
T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups.