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Why work-from-home doesn't work -- in India and elsewhere

Employers generally feel there is a big chance that this facility will be misused

M Saraswathy 

M Saraswathy

It is 8:00 am on a Monday. You realise that there are some household chores to be completed, but cannot afford to take a holiday from work. Just then, you find an easy way out. “Have some pending work. Will today,” is the SMS that you send to the boss. His reply is prompt too: “Fine. But please don’t make this a habit”.

There are two main reasons why the work-from-home concept doesn’t work, especially in the Indian workplace. Firstly, most domestic organisations prefer employees to be physically present in office, rather than logging in from another location.

“Working from home is not our culture. The two concepts are antithetical to each other in their very meaning,” quips a human resource official from a financial services firm. Secondly, executives believe that productivity would be affected if an employee works from home. Chief people officers of Indian companies say that there is a higher probability of this facility being misused.

'Work is something that we do, not a place where we go', is the popular perception by advocates of telecommuting. These individuals believe that as long as the work is done, one should not bother about where the work is being done from. With the rapid proliferation of technology, this task does not seem too complex. With the advancement in smart devices and allied software, finishing a presentation on time or completing the audits is not as daunting a task, as it was earlier.

But are employers convinced? Not quite. With IT giant Yahoo retracting on its work-from-home policy recently, there are others who are planning to give this option only to high-performers rather than broad-basing it. Productivity is a serious issue, say human resource consultants. Employees are at fault, most of the times, they say. “Some workers take work-from-home for granted and use it as an opportunity to laze around. This not only affects the business performance of the organisation, but also deters employers from offering this facility,” says an IT recruitment specialist.

Globally, less than 10 per cent people In India, this figure is miniscule. Except for some companies in the IT space and firms that are unable to afford physical space, most Indian employers prefer to see their employees everyday. Their mantra: ‘The more you interact with your colleagues, the more ideas you generate for the business’.

Sujata Shekhar, a 35-year-old woman working from her residence in Mumbai, with a magazine based in Bangalore, says that work-from-home facility for her is an option that was given by the organisation, as they could not set up infrastructure in this city. “But, that does not mean that I don’t work as much as my Bangalore colleagues. In fact, I am expected to put in more man-hours and generate more value, since I work from the comfort of my home. So it is a myth that telecommuting means relaxing in your pyjamas at home,” she quickly points.

International research has shown that telecommuting may also affect one’s career prospects and lower the chances of a promotion. Since he/she hasn’t been spotted too often in an office, his/her assessment may also get affected, say various studies. Productivity, these studies say, is difficult to measure in these cases. This, according to global HR experts has prompted both, employers to be selective in offering it and employees using it with discretion. Pregnancy and new mothers are still exceptions.

With international debate on the work-from-home concept heating up due to the Yahoo CEO’s decision, company managements of organisations from across the world are taking this concept with a pinch of salt. HR consultants say that the question now is really not about whether to offer it or not, but about how often should it be offered. While you may still be given a option occasionally, telecommuting for longer duration still appears to be a distant dream for employees across the globe.

First Published: Wed, April 10 2013. 17:50 IST