If truth be told, I have never been a fan of city life, which is why I moved to a remote village in southern Tamil Nadu at the end of 2019. Today, after nearly two years of breathing fresh air, enjoying wide open spaces, and tutoring local children, I find village life difficult to resist. Work-wise, the omnipresent broadband access and the 4G network are strong enough for me to collaborate with various teams remotely from the village.
In July last year, we conducted an internal survey which showed that 40% of our employees who had returned to their hometowns just before the nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of covid-19, preferred to continue working from there. So, when the lockdown restrictions were relaxed after the first wave, we started experimenting with satellite offices (20-30 seaters) in rural and semi-urban areas, and have opened 20 of them. When we open a new office anywhere, one or more experienced employees from our existing offices move to the location to act as anchors and catalysts.
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Feedback from employees who moved to rural offices has only been positive. I am increasingly convinced that rural offices will become relevant in the future and benefit the country at large.
Here’s why, if you are a tech company, you should consider rural offices.
Get closer to nature
The covid-19 pandemic offers evidence that, in the event of a worldwide crisis, cities are the first to face significant work disruption and severe economic dislocation. On the other hand, rural areas get some breathing space to take necessary preventive measures before a calamity makes inroads.
Food security is reasonably assured since we are close to the source of food—the very place we grow it. In times of adversity, food security is essential.
I always urge employees to take up organic farming and buy a patch of land. At our new Austin office (which was earlier a farmhouse) in the US, a group of employees decided to experiment with something similar. A year on, we have a thriving farm that serves as a food source for our employees and families.
Say bye to high costs
Rural areas offer fairly cheap real estate. This allows companies to set up offices at a fraction of the cost of creating a base in a city. The savings will provide a longer runway for companies and contribute to R&D investments.
Companies also need to rethink the office commute for their employees to reduce urban congestion, and rural offices are a good alternative.
Revitalise rural communities
Rural distress is alarming, and one of the major causes is talent erosion, which I liken to agricultural top soil erosion. Unfortunately, young, smart and ambitious people leave villages and migrate to urban areas in search of better-paying jobs.
This leaves older people to fend for themselves, and the village slowly declines. It has become a destructive pattern.
On the other hand, we have massively overcrowded cities. Empowering the local youth with high-income opportunities in their hometowns will halt displacement and anchor them to their rural homes.
We always try to hire locally for our rural offices, once they are up and running. This allows us to attract talent from a broader pool of candidates, most of whom would be overlooked by organisations with traditional hiring models.
A return to roots
Over the past few decades, in the globalised era, young people are growing up rootless. People who leave their hometowns for work feel like they do not belong anywhere. Any strong ecosystem needs diversity, which can come only from strong cultural roots and indigenous environments. Corporate organisations can help individuals reconnect with their roots. Many employees have a longing to “go back home” and embrace their old lives, and rural offices provide a way out of this dilemma.
With time, I envision a substantial percentage of our employees to be spread across locations, playing a key role in skill development and job creation in those communities. When skilled professionals return and distribute themselves across their hometowns, it results in a cross-pollination of ideas. Knowledge sharing networks slowly emerge and skill-transfers become easier.
Altogether, the focus needs to shift from capital cities to self-reliant and peaceful towns for the benefit of individuals, organisations, communities and nations. This is especially important in India, where rural communities account for nearly 70% of the nation’s total populace. Given this ground reality, private sector organisations need to step up to create skills among rural youth, increase job opportunities, improve wealth creation and eventually contribute to holistic economic growth. Such investments have a huge pay-off for organisations as well, enabling superior growth and long-term gains. Not to mention, digital technologies like the cloud, broadband and virtual networking services are today more than capable to power a distributed workforce and support hybrid models.
Sridhar Vembu is chief executive and co-founder of Zoho Corp.
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