Elon Musk doesn’t like the WFH. Neither New York Mayor Eric Adams nor London Mayor Sadiq Khan, although for different reasons. Musk, a notorious workaholic who calls the WFH “pretend,” just ordered Tesla executives to spend at least 40 hours a week in the office, “not a pseudo-remote office.” Without mincing words, Musk adds that if Tesla employees don’t show up, “we’ll assume you quit.”
So can Musk, Adams and Khan bring workers back to their offices? In fact, can anyone bring the workers back to their offices? Unionized Tesla employees in Germany are already protesting the idea of returning to work as in the tight US labor market, disgruntled Tesla employees may simply move to more flexible companies. Adams tried to persuade legendary JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon to lead by example and take the subway to work with him. Adams worries if New York’s central business district, the beating heart of the city, dies, he could put the entire metropolis on its deathbed.
A real estate consultant warns that “if city centers die around the world, economies will collapse. They have hotels and restaurants and a whole infrastructure around it,” he says.
Across the Atlantic, Khan is waging a similar battle to get people back to their offices. Said Khan: “The key thing that I think we need to understand is that if we’re all staying home to work, that’s a big deal for central London.”
Musk, Adams and Khan aren’t the only ones worried about the future of work. But they can face forces too great for them to repel. An era of experimentation is upon us in the world of work and it seems increasingly likely that we are heading towards an era where many will be working full or part-time from home. (Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has already thrown in the towel and said employees can work on TV forever.)
Simultaneously, we also seem to be moving towards the age of the four-day workweek. And yes, Indian cities and business centers also face the same dilemma as London and New York. In the Delhi Metro, for example, ridership is back to around 70% of pre-pandemic numbers, although anyone who has traveled during rush hour insists they feel no less crowded .
If you are a retailer, a nurse, a bus driver or an airline pilot, it is fair to say that you will never work from home. But other offices have felt over the past two Covid-devastated years that much of the work can be done from home. Most companies aren’t happy to see their employees step away from their all-seeing gaze, but some accept the reality that they can’t tether their employees to office premises and that working from home has its advantages in terms of ability to cut office costs. Some are hiring remote workers with lower wages. (Even under the watchful eyes of bosses, research suggests people spend just under 40% of their time working and the rest surfing the internet or talking on the phone.)
The Indian scene
In India, corporate HR departments are struggling to find the best way forward. “A lot of HR thinking is about people who are permanently working from home and others who want to work close to home,” says an HR consultant. And there’s an added complication in India: there’s a large number of employees who have returned to their home Tier 2 cities and decided they don’t want to return to the big city where the rents and the life in general are expensive.
Global IT/ITeS companies are not forcing employees back to the office, at least not yet. They face resistance from employees to return to work in other parts of the world and cannot insist that their Indian employees be different. Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte and RPG Group, among others, are showing flexibility. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Lakshmi C, managing director of human resources at Accenture India.
Major Indian companies are looking at policies that will allow them to get the best talent and also be agile in the workspace. But they are eager to get employees back to the office. Coach and leadership development consultant, Abhijit Bhaduri says, “Most clients want you to be physically present for external locations. They try to make up for lost time.
Then there are the unicorns and soon-to-be-horns, many of whom have begun laying off staff as cash becomes tight and the flow of free cash slows. These small businesses are, with few exceptions, asking employees to return to work.
In India, employers may still have the upper hand, but changes could be imposed on them by what is happening abroad. Take a look at giant global banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase who initially insisted that all employees return to the office. Dimon de Morgan meticulously detailed the downsides of remote work, including that it doesn’t “work for the culture, doesn’t work for idea generation.” He was backed by Sachs boss David Solomon.
Today, Dimon and Solomon seem to be moving away from their radical positions. Dimon now says the bank will only have room for 60% of its employees to work in the office. He adds that 10% will now work permanently from home and that many or most will follow the hybrid FMH-office option. Why? Because of employee backfire.
Four day week
But working from home isn’t the only potential change disrupting the business world. In the United Kingdom, 3,000 employees from 70 companies are taking part in the trial of a four-day working week. The agreement is that wages will not be reduced but that work performance must remain the same. A wide range of companies, ranging from IT to banking, skincare and healthcare, are participating.
Similar experiments have been attempted in different parts of the world. Even before the 2019 pandemic, Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day work week for a month. The result, to his surprise, was a 40% increase in productivity. All meetings were limited to 30 minutes.
Also in Japan, where working hours are notoriously brutal and extend well into the night, the country’s economic policy guidelines for 2021 suggested adopting the four-day workweek. Meanwhile, Dubai has already adopted a four-and-a-half-day working week for its public sector.
Will these changes trickle down to India, where many companies still operate a six-day week? It may seem unlikely soon, but remember that the changes happening across the world are also having their impact here. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the world of work is going to be very different after Covid compared to before Covid. Bhaduri says, “There is a lot of fluidity. It’s the first day of the next five years.
June 07, 2022