When I started Webizus, a digital agency, me and my 2 co-founders used to work from my co-founders bedroom. When we hired my friend, straight out of MCA, as our first employee, we realized that there was no space for him in the bedroom. We asked him to work from home. He was not happy. He wanted a "real job" in a "real office". The year was 1999. We (the co-founders) had no issues though. We chatted on MSN, reviewed his code on the server and involved him in client concalls. This experience taught me the power of remote work.
In 2007, Times Now interviewed me on telecommuting, ironically in my office. I made such bold (read outlandish) statements, that the interview was never aired on TV. It didn't dampen my enthusiasm though. Employees working together in an office space is a concept that I could never come to terms with. Consequently, the idea of a city that would house these business districts seemed illogical to me. Everyone leaving for work from their homes to work in the same business districts, congesting roads and wasting valuable time was just the tip of the iceberg. Artificially illuminated, centrally air conditioned offices are the root cause for a lot of health ailments. The commute also means employees spend lesser time with their families, increasing stress levels. Whenever they are with their family, all they are thinking about is the quality of the activity. Could I have something else in this time that would have been more meaningful? The result is that they are mentally absent form the moment.
I remained vocal in support of WFH for another 7 years, extolling its virtues to clients and partners. I even convinced the chartered accountancy firm we were dealing with, to telecommute. The nail in the coffin was hammered in by a series of events around a certain way of life; Smart Cities. In 2014, countries around the world started or stepped up their efforts in making their cities smarter.
There were two important takeaways for me:
- Urban planners worldwide had taken a stand that decongesting cities of the world was not possible
- Although the technology could support it, WFH was shockingly left out of smart city implementation plans
In fact, making commuting smarter became the poster child of smart cities. What actually happened was that the cities got smarter and harassed the hapless commuter even more. Higher tolls, odd even licence plate numbers, ride sharing, smart parking, the technology was trying to solve an infrastructure overload issue. Instead of ramping up infrastructure, city councils and governments were hiding behind fancy technology.
I had always kept a tab on the penetration of broadband internet connectivity across the country, erroneously believing that a combination of reliable PCs, electricity and internet will mushroom telecommuting adoption.
The truth finally dawned on me after observing the 2014 smart city adoptions across the globe. Work From Home was not taking off not because of lack of awareness or lack of infrastructure, it was due the lack of willingness on part of corporates. Telecommuting was not a priority for policymakers, because firms had not lobbied for it. Not until COVID 19.
I was pleasantly surprised to read about TCS' 25/25 model for remote work. Only 25% of TCS employees will be working from office by 2025. A virus had successfully negated a long lasting prejudice, Management By Walking Around. TCS employs 5000 people in an office in my neighborhood. They are all blue collar migrants. Restaurants in my area offer an additional 10% discount to them. Their office intranet flashes offers from landlords more than willing to offer their houses on rent to them. I assume an equal number of original residents of my area work in TCS too, but in other cities around the country and even outside. Now assume TCS (& all other corporates) start offering WFH to all their employees or even 75% of them. Would the 5000 employees living as paying guests or on room sharing basis in my area stick around? Will TCS ask its new hires to shift to cities where it has office in?
Keeping the well being of our team members in mind, our offices were shut 5 days before the mandatory orders came in. Some more firms that had a WFH culture (not the feeble one day a week at home rule). Many of my acquaintances who are from rural Maharshtra rushed to their villages the same day. Most of them returned back in a couple of days, not able to procure a reliable internet connection. The ones who did are having a gala time. The cost of living halves as we move from Mumbai to say Bhubaneswar. It halves again if you move from Bhubaneswar to a village in Odisha. At half the salary in Mumbai, you achieve parity if your employee works in a village in Odisha. Practically, you will need to keep salaries slightly higher than that to provide an incentive to employees to stay put in their villages. Also add a WFH allowance. Companies that have salaries as their major expense can actually make this a competitive advantage. Who will hire city folks at double salaries anymore?