IT IndustryOpinion

The Work from Home Disruption

What if the future of work is one where location of the worker is immaterial?

There is a certain level of absurdity in the entire way how we “work”, isn’t there? Don’t you think about it? I know I do, about why we must spend a significant part of our lives following a set of senseless rituals under the guise of “work”. Why do we have to spend time, money and effort every day, dressing up and travelling significant distances in expensive conveyance devices along with hundreds or even thousands of others to converge at a building and sit at a desk the entire day executing a series of tasks we call “work” under stressful conditions, only to make the same bloody trip back home in the evening, by the time which you are good for nothing, only to rinse and repeat the entire cycle the next day? Don’t you think this is ridiculous? What is the point of this charade when sending emails, making phone calls, listening to others talk, getting yourself shouted at and making changes to data on computers can be accomplished from anywhere rather than endure great inconveniences with physical travel? It is not just punishing to the individual but is so terribly inefficient because the total effort taken to reach “work” is more than the output produced! It is incredible that we insist on hanging on to a system invented back when slave and child labour was still legal even in the “most advanced” of nations, ostensibly to build a “modern world” with “cutting edge technology”! It is exasperating when people come up with grand technological solutions from flying cars to teleportation to help them “go to office”. Pray, why should a society that has achieved such technological heights like teleportation still think they have to “go to office” like they were living in the 21st century or something?

“Why can’t companies allow employees to work from home?”

The modern concept of “time and location-bound” employment along with most of our economic philosophy and way of life was created by the 19th century Industrial Revolution in England. First evolved to ensure effective migration from an agrarian society to an industrial one by promoting peak efficiency, time and resource management, maximum output etc., it was then adopted as-it-is when paper-pushing “office work” jobs of the service industry rose out of it. You do realise that many practices that were established for a reason have with the passage of time fossilised into inviolable ritualistic observations even when their original intentions have long since lost or make no sense in today’s circumstances (don’t cut your nails at night!) and are followed as a means to an end in themselves? Employment, too, has turned into one of those. In fact, the entire thing of how we are expected to can actually be codified into a set of instructions, a code of labour (Codice Laborem). So even in today’s so-called hyper-technological world, we still live and work by the rules and rituals established to govern 1800s factories. The Codice Laborem has been so deeply embedded in our civilisation and our lives conceptualised around it, that it has become impossible to even think of an alternative. The code created our modern way of societal life centered around employment and employer.

Codice Laborem

The entire set of rituals and “rules” that we follow every day that forms the basis of how we work and how we behave in our workplaces can be said to be part of this code. We have been following these taking it as rules set in stone since forever.

  • Work will be the identity of the the individual.
  • Life of the worker will revolve entirely around the facility and the work they do.
  • Workers need to have their lives controlled and dictated by the clock and the calendar.
  • Workers need to be physically present every day at the facility to execute assigned tasks .
  • They need to reside somewhere nearby where they can reach the facility with some amount of travel (commute).
  • Workers need to travel from their places of residence to the facility and back every day.
  • Workers need to be present every day of the week at the facility to execute tasks except on the day of religious observation. Absenteeism will be strongly discouraged and allowed only for a certain number of days in a year.
  • Workers may execute tasks for a fixed number of daily hours set by the facility but will usually be during daylight hours when workers have to strictly be present at the facility.
  • Workers need to be dressed in their “Sunday best” attire that is considered appropriate and presentable in a public setting as per societal norms.
  • The facility and its elders will be in total control of the worker’s lives inside and outside the facility. They will be closely monitored and observed at all times by specialised people.

On another note, most of the human civilisation’s control rituals have been of the same template. A bunch of people assembling in a building to execute a series of rituals under the watchful eye of an “elder”.

Until around the beginnings of the this century, it made complete sense for everyone to assemble at a place to do work. This was because access to the tools, devices and platforms office workers used to their thing was possible only if the employer supplied them, and work could not happen anywhere else because a lot of it depended on pen being put to reams of paper and said paper making the round of people. None of this is necessary today. However, still, we follow the hollow shells of those old rituals even when the insides that gave reason for a solid outer covering have long since petrified and rotted away. We are still expected to “go to office”. Remote working has not become universal because employers simply do not trust to leave employees out of their sight and direct control. Employment was always about exercising near-total control on the lives of the “resources”, as they are deploringly known in most organisations, to ensure maximum return on money spent. You wouldn’t want to be unaware of what your investments are up to on a continuous basis, right? That some track employee’s activities during company time using software only reinforces that it is not about quality or productivity or efficiency, but only about control. Every part of our lives, right from our childhood, is designed towards preparing us for a fixed-office-time working life by inculcating us with the basics of the Codice Laboris. Our entire economy is designed around this.

The Coronavirus pandemic has cracked a hole in this shell. There is no longer any ambiguity about if remote working will “work” or not. It works exceedingly well. Staff collaborate using tools from MS Team to Whatsapp. Video streaming has suddently become the default way to meet, even for sales pitches. Productivity has increased in most cases. A lot of employees are happy. Many believe widespread remote working might be one of the permanent changes the pandemic brought in. So, imagine this happens. A couple of “industry bellwethers” make the current “work from home” trend mainstream as part of their long-term strategy and proceed to reap enormous benefits from it. Others will have no choice but to follow the latest in industry standards or be rendered obsolete as it has happened countless times (Kodak to Nokia to Yahoo). Once this reaches a critical mass we will suddenly realise that “working from home” has become the default way of “going to office”. This will be a disruption that could potentially bring about the greatest social, economic and societal change our civilisation has witnessed since World War 2.

The WFH Disruption

How can remote working be sustainable in the long term and is not anything but a passing fad? There are quite a few compelling reasons for this. For one, “offices” are basically only hubs for communication. As we said before, earlier all those communication tools were “offline”, “analog”, “physical”, expensive and scarce requiring people go to the place where all that was accessible. Today the situation has reversed as communication channels and people are available anywhere and at all times and all “work” is available for digital execution. It is convenient and efficient for everyone involved. Then there are savings. The obvious primary savings are facilities, rent, electricity, consumables, administration, transport. Secondary benefits come from increased productivity, performance, employee satisfaction, talent attraction etc. But the real advantage of remote working will be something else totally. Remote working will be one of the major enablers of the present automation and digitisation trend. People, being the biggest liability and weakest link in organisational chains were already slow and inefficient, and now it turns out they are susceptible to viruses as well. The disruption is here to stay because it makes sure the economy will not crash if people are unable to travel to office. Like it or not, the best Business Continuity Plan is to let people work from wherever they are if possible.

Globalisation is coming to an end. Inward-looking geopolitical trends have terminally endangered our (India) favourite outsourced cost arbitrage model of large numbers of headcounted people sitting in buildings doing things on computers. It was on life support anyway. Instead, work will now move on the cloud and collaboration, a kind of packaged EaaS (employment as a service). Not many people have noticed this, but there has been a recent trend of foreign clients are leveraging digital and automation to move “core” IT functions back in-house on-shore at a small fraction of their offshore workforce counts and costs. They still execute non-core, adhoc, support and specialised functions off-shore, but direcly through freelancers (“consultants”) in India rather than through contractual agreements with Indian IT companies. How do I know this? Because I got two such offers (didn’t take them though). What we are witnessing now is the evolution of “gig working” in the IT industry (“consultants”). Professionals “gig-techies” can (and will) work as an when it is demanded (on-demand work, just like on-demand video) from scattered locations without having to travel or meet anyone. Even sales pitches can happen online.

Imagine a fully automated factory. Even if not people, you will still need a facility to house machinery and stuff to produce physical goods. Have you ever wondered what a fully automated office would look like? Exactly. There will be no spoon. You don’t even need a building. In a digital future controlled by AI paradigms who know no constrains of space or time can execute tasks on servers scattered globally every moment of the day at magnitudes of efficiency, what sense or relevance will obsolete concepts as thousands of people converging in a building to do things for only a fixed number of hours make? Why do you need to spend time, money and headache to herd together so many people at a location when you can just temporarily consult them as per requirement, which can be done from anywhere? What if all current employees were to become such on-demand consultants? Employment for tasks using digital media to be restricted by physical locations brings other bottlenecks like people unable to take up great assignments and companies unable to hire talented people because they live in Bangalore and the office is in Bangalore :). Employment will become a flexible, partnership affair rather than the control and command structure currently in place.

Society-changing disruptions usually sneak up unexpectedly to create new world orders. For instance, the greatest industrial, civilisational and societal disruption in the “modern” age was the mainstreaming of the automobile, replacing animal muscle as the primary engine (pun unintended) for human conveyance. Do you know why cars replaced horses? The popular trope of equine excreta filling up city streets is certainly not horseshit, but only half the story. The main was of course, economics. Cars costed significantly lesser since Henry Ford’s assembly line and brought better economic gains compared to horses. The resulting disruption over less than a decade, single-handedly (with some help from WWI) created the world we see around us. Many people expect the next disruption to come from the automobile sector itself (self-driving cars, flying cars, Uber/Ola). They might be in for a boring anti-climax.

A world where remote working is the norm

Read through the Codice again. What if the way we worked stopped following any those rules? That is how work in a “remote working” world will look like. The future of work will be one where physical locations do not matter or exist. The consequences of this disruption will not be just “traffic and pollution”, like people like to say. Remote working will make the Codice Laboris redundant, along with anything that is connected to it will break too, which is everything we have ever known of and believed about employment, society, economics, and the philosophies of our lives in general marking the obsolescence of our ways of living as we know it today and rendering society unrecognisable in a couple of decades.

The future often turns out to be different from what we imagine because of the way our perspectives and perception work. We tend to imagine the future as a straight-line extrapolation of our present without considering various disruptions on the way. For instance, if you tried to explain to a 19th century Swiss that just 200 years later her country would be the richest on Earth, or to an Emirati in the 1940s that his children would be living in the glitziest metropolis of the world, or to a Bangalorean in 1991 that there will be an international airport in Devanahalli, you would be laughed out of the room. Would people in 18th century India, even the most educated ones, understand corporate office working culture of the 21st century? Disruptions shift the current flow of time directly onto a new plane where the reality is different and present conditions do not even hold true. It is nearly impossible to envision how this will change things, but we could try, starting with our cities.

The Codice Laborem made cities the centerpieces of our modern global industrial civilisation by creating the self-feeding closed loop cycle of employment centres generating economic activity generating employment centres. The hallmark of this is people moving to cities for work. Demand and growth in today’s global cities are literally driven by (generally young) white-collar economic migrants who arrive in search of “office” jobs and over the course of years spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small country on things from apartments and cars to lifestyle and school fees. A steady stream follows as countrysides get emptied out of youth and money and cities stay young. Breaking the Codice will also break this city-cycle in the middle, setting off a chain reaction affecting everything connected to it. This will perpetuate when economic white-collar migrants start questioning the (economic feasibility) sense of staying in the city when their “jobs” can now be done from anywhere. The stream of new migrants slow to a trickle when most would choose to remain near to their parents, like it always had been. It is the concept of a steady job, a daily thing to do, that keeps people rooted to places. What when everything becomes temporary and transient? Think, Dubai. In around a decade our society will have become unrecognisable.

The scale at which remote working as the norm would affect cities is mind-boggling. The self-propagating, symbiotic industrial landlord-tenant system which the Codice Laboris created will be broken. A lot of industries and demand for apartments, shops and office spaces will drop as no one would want to spend their money on transient things. “Downtowns” or CBDs filled with glass towers and skyscrapers will decline into oblivion. There is a talk about house and land prices in the outskirts of cities increasing as people try to move out of the city. They don’t understand. What happens when everyone tries to move to the suburbs? Marathahalli was the suburbs once. Whitefield was another town altogether. Do they really expect people to buy more houses to move 10 km away? Nearly all among the millions of migrants are not native to the city or mostly even to the state. They can live rent-free in their parents homes. They will not move to the suburbs. They will go home. Apartments have long even before COVID19 ceased to be of any investment worth. Anyway. Double-bubbles that were built on white-collar economic migrants’ consumerist habits from education to health care and entertainment to F&B will all burst. Creative destruction, at its finest.

Of course, cities will continue to thrive as centres of human activity and trade and commerce but the urbanisation trends we have been witnessing since the 1990s might drastically slow, devastating the massive global consumerist bubble that has been building up for the past few decades. Imagine an alternative reality, where there are no “IT park” offices and buildings in the city along with nearly three-quarters of their populations and all the trappings that evolved to serve this population, from hotels to housing to hospitals and brew pubs. All those people never had to move to the city because they were all offered the same high-paying software jobs in their hometowns and villages itself. How would this world look like? That is what the disruption is going to make felt.

All this is not something fantastic or imaginary. All this has already (and that too quite recently) happened, playing out in recent history in the exact same manner. You might want to read up on the “suburbanization” of America in the 1970s, often called “white flight” in more politically incorrect terms, when improved road networks and cheap spacious housing in Suburbia prompted the mass-exodus of economically well-off, working-class middle-class people (mostly white) out of cities.

If you imagine “working from home” as a difficult task from a small PG room with no furniture, food or laundry, think from the angle that you won’t be in the city at all in the first place. We will also stop thinking in terms of abstract concepts like “weekends” and “working hours” (which are anyway inventions of the Codice Laboris). The meanings of “leave”, “public holidays” and “vacations” will also change as “work” gets stretched out across the calendar. We might have “full holiday” and “part holiday” depending on how much you are expected to be disturbed. “Home office” might become a infrastructure, many people talk about being ready to invest in tech and furniture if they were allowed to “permanently” work from home. Compensation may include internet bills and “home office” allowances. It could be actually quite profitable for employees when they will be able to work at their own time, liberated from physical confines.

Societal changes will be even more profound. Our relationships with peers, colleagues and family, education and the way and means for it, investment mentality, what we spend money on, will all changes in ways unimaginable. How we conduct our social lives will be upended. Cities are where life happens, where your cohort resides. A lot, maybe most or even all, of socialising in the modern world centers around cities and offices. What will happen to all that? Then there is the outlook of “moving to a village” as a status downgrade. However, you are not in the same boat as everyone. You will be surprised by how the presence of individuals with steady high-to-medium-high incomes in places where that is not common can change things. Still, it is understood that a lot of people do not have a social life outside their offices, and that they and their children are hopelessly dependent on the city, that they cannot literally survive anywhere else.

And all this could play out surprisingly quickly. It is economic realities that overwhelmingly dictate most human action and the direction of our civilisations because when presented with a choice, humans (and things governed by them) always tend to favour options that are financially and economically gratifying. We then adjust our day-to-day lives to build an environment around this economic reality. The rest is details. And it is always these people who benefit and survive long-term. Those who prioritise appearances at the (literal) cost of money will often find themselves in economic ruin. Would you insist on spending countless lakhs on an apartment, cars, school fees and other pretensions in an expensive and hyper-polluted city if you had a choice? The new “remote working” normal will have you save on everything from fuel to formal attire (another senseless ritualistic creation of the Codice Laboris) so much so that you will be surprised about how much you can actually save.

However still, most companies can’t wait to get their employees back into their offices now that lockdowns are lifting. “So much for the new norm of work from home”, some people huff. We are an extremely nostalgic species that cannot digest change and keep pining for those “good old days” and the ways of the yore. But disruptive changes happen with such force and speed that you barely realise it. Remember, it only took one decision by one market leader to disrupt the old Indian IT industry model as we knew it. If remote working works and brings immediate savings of upto 20% and that it is an excellent primer for the future, and is advantageous to quite a few people, why shouldn’t be adopted? For tradition’s sake? The greatest proponents of “office working” are still the decadent “middle-manager class” who have been watching their “power” and “influence” over their kingdoms erode and wither away, and their entitlement of drawing plush salaries while adding nearly no value vanish into smoke. Change is inevitable, change is nature’s perpetual motion machine that never slows and pushes those who refuse to change out of the way which is why desperate bids to hang on to the old control-model will only hasten its demise. We’d better start living the “technological future” we keep jabbering about. Can’t wait to see it.

COCCYX: We all know that airplanes make money only when they are flying. Airlines lose money every minute their planes sit on the ground (parking, landing, handling etc., and those charges aren’t cheap). So, much of the commercial airline business is about trying to keep the planes off the ground as much as possible. Our economy in general is designed to achieve the same thing. People sitting at home for extended periods is bad for business. run when people leave their homes and travel long distances to engage in totally frivolous and utterly unnecessary activities at purpose-build locations, which includes offices. Imagine the money you spend “going to office” on an average day (fuel/transit, food, food, food, breaks, shopping, after-office activities etc.). There is a massive, massive ecosystem out there that depends on the ritualistic flow of people in and out of offices every day. If everyone were to work from (mostly) home, can you imagine the hole it would blow in local economies, especially of cities? Will the breakdown of the Codice Laborem be disruptive enough to end the rent-seeing, fossil fuel economy in force for the last two centuries? Will the mafia fight to get people back on the streets?

COCCYX2: I am loving the entire “working from home” thing. It has been incredibly refreshing, relaxing and rejuvenating, improving concentration, cognition and cogency. Not having to worry about random things from finding socks (and the rest of the morning stress) to traffic and unpleasant encounters everywhere, this was probably the least stressful period of my life. I know I am privileged for having a home, supplies and live in a place that is not polluted or crowded and has renowned crisis management abilities and I am thankful for that.

Featured image by Goumbik from Pixabay

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