Even as the world scrambles to contain the effects of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which has claimed over 10,456 victims worldwide and infected another 255,290, enterprises in mainland China and Hong Kong are trying their best to ensure business as normal (or as much as can be expected under the circumstances). Many businesses have kept their offices closed as a precautionary measure until February 10. Several million workers are working out of home offices instead of commuting to work—something that Bloomberg termed the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”. In fact, the surge in videoconferencing and online traffic due to millions of people working from home caused temporary disruptions on collaboration apps.

While sudden jolts to any major economy are considered bad for global business, the transition to working from home is expected to provide interesting insights into the debate over whether telecommuting is better than having people working together in a conventional office.

Remote working is becoming popular

Remote working has become increasingly common around the world, and in India. A 2019 study by IWG said that 62% of businesses worldwide and 58% in India have flexible workspace policies. Around the world, 75% of respondents considered flexible work to be ‘the new normal’, with many job-seekers prioritising it in their job search process.  

Another survey commissioned by job portal Indeed last year also showed that 73% of Indian respondents whose employers didn’t have a remote work policy, would like them to offer that option. Over half of them said they would even consider a pay cut if that option was available! And 42% had already searched for jobs that offered more flexibility.

So what makes remote work (either from home, a shared office, a coffee shop, on the road, or anywhere else besides your company premises) so attractive?

According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019 report, having a flexible schedule and the ability to work from any location were the biggest pluses. In congested cities, the time spent in commuting leaves precious little space for getting things done, and eats into time that could otherwise have been spent with family or just as “me-time” with yourself.

Other similar studies have cited advantages like mental health benefits for employees (less stress, burnout), environmental benefits (fewer cars on the road), lower operational costs for employers and the chance for businesses to position themselves as employee-friendly.

Not everyone supports it

However, it’s not all roses. In 2017, IBM asked thousands of US employees to return to the office, as part of its “recipe for success” through greater collaboration. Four years before that, Yahoo also asked employees to show up at work, or leave, with the HR memo saying “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

In 2014, Judith Olson, an American researcher who studied distance work for over two decades, observed that there are four problems with distributed workforces:

  • Being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ of one’s colleagues create communication challenges,
  • Trust doesn’t come as easily as when people are collocated, i.e. working together in the same location,
  • Our understanding of other cultures, perceptions and habits needs greater effort,
  • Time zone differences create needless tensions, particularly for sites with fewer people, not the headquarters

And then, of course, there is the fact that not every industry can have ‘work from home’ policies—healthcare institutions, factories and retail stores will always need on-site staff, while people working in management or technology functions, or in creative fields, may not have similar constraints.

The counter-arguments

For their part, advocates of distance work offer equally compelling arguments, including that:

  • A large chunk of work today happens on email, collaboration apps or teleconference anyway, since large companies almost never have all their staff in one location. So direct collaboration among collocated workers is not always possible.
  • Productivity concerns are often rooted in a lack of training (including for leaders) and technology tools that make distributed workforces effective. Providing such training can solve the problem.
  • Drawn-out meetings, water-cooler chats and social media use at work cause time wastages in traditional offices, while people working at home are task-driven and will often work extra hours to get their work done.
  • Companies that have called staff back to the workplace have not (yet) witnessed any dramatic changes in revenues directly attributable to that decision.

The above debate has been raging for a while, which is why the situation in China—although the unintended side-effect of a human tragedy—could provide some important data or conclusive evidence.

Admittedly, working off-location may not be applicable to everyone, all the time. But having flexible work policies can definitely help companies attract millennial and post-millennial workers, who prioritise personal time and productivity over time spent at work.

Meanwhile, maximising productivity when working remotely is also up to the person. If you currently work remotely or from home, consider the following microsteps to stay engaged and productive:

  1. Create a ‘productivity zone’: Choose a location that is quiet, distraction-free and has all the tools you need to work smoothly: reliable internet, coffee, good phone network, etc. Having a productivity zone, as opposed to working from your couch or dining table, makes it your ‘go-to place’ to get serious work done.   
  2. Break up your time: Designate specific times for work and personal activities. Use your most productive hours to tackle the most important work at hand. And the time you normally spend on personal activities or with family should be kept separate. Let your colleagues know these times in advance so as to minimise interruptions.  
  3. Take breaks: If your work involves sitting at a screen for long hours, take breaks from time to time. You can stretch or take a short walk to clear your mind. Don’t spend this time on gadgets.
  4. Schedule face-time meetings: Loneliness and lack of communication with colleagues can be very real outcomes of remote work. Schedule time to meet your co-workers, brainstorm or have work conversations that you otherwise miss out during the week.
  5. Take the extra effort: Communicating with people from different locations or who are culturally different from you takes a little bit of extra effort, since certain things may get misunderstood or lost. Take the extra effort to communicate clearly, track progress and responsibilities clearly, and consciously cultivate patience and trust so that you don’t jump to conclusions if something doesn’t go to plan.

Note: Coronavirus toll and case statistics updated on 20 March 2020