Elon Musk doesn’t like WFH. Neither does New York Mayor Eric Adams or London Mayor Sadiq Khan, though for different reasons. Musk, a notorious workaholic who calls WFH “pretend’ work, has just ordered Tesla executives to spend 40-hours minimum weekly at the office, “not some remote pseudo-office.” Not mincing words, Musk adds if Tesla employees don’t turn up, “we will assume you have resigned.”
So can Musk, Adams and Khan get the workers back to their offices? In fact, can anyone get workers back to their offices? Unionised Tesla employees in Germany are already protesting the back-to-office idea while in the tight US labour market, unhappy Tesla employees may just switch to more flexible firms. Adams’s been trying to persuade JP Morgan’s legendary chief Jamie Dimon to set an example and take the subway to work with him. Adams worries if New York’s central business district, the city’s beating heart, dies, it could put the entire metropolis on its deathbed.
One real estate consultant warns that, “If city centres die around the world economies will crash. They have hotels and restaurants and a whole infrastructure around it,” he says.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Khan is fighting a similar battle to get people back to their offices. Said Khan: “The key thing I think we need to understand is if we all stay at home working, it’s a big problem for Central London.”
Musk, Adams and Khan aren’t the only ones worrying about how the future of work will unfold. But they may be facing forces too great for them to beat back. An age of experimentation is upon us in the work world and it looks increasingly likely we’re headed towards an era where many will work full-time or partly from home. (Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has already thrown in the towel and said employees can WFH forever.)
Simultaneously, we also seem heading towards the age of the four-day working week. And yes, Indian cities and business hubs are also facing the same dilemma as London and New York. On the Delhi Metro, for example, ridership is back to around 70 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers, though anyone who has travelled during the rush-hour insists it doesn’t feel any less crowded.
If you’re a retail worker, nurse, bus driver or an airline pilot, it’s fair to say you’re never going to be working from home. But other offices have figured in the last two Covid-blighted years that a large chunk of work can be done from home. Most companies aren’t happy to see their employees slip away from beneath their all-seeing gaze, but some are accepting the reality they can’t tether their employees to the office premises and that WFH has its benefits in terms of being able to cut office space costs. Some are hiring remote workers on lower salaries. (Even when under watchful bosses’ gazes, research suggests people spend just under 40 per cent of their time working and they spend way the rest surfing the Internet or talking on the phone.)
The Indian scene
In India, the HR departments of companies are wrestling to figure out the best way forward. “A lot of HR thinking is going into people who permanently work from home and others who want to work near home,” says an HR consultant. And there’s an added complication in India: there are large numbers of employees who’ve returned to their tier-2 home cities and decided they don’t want to return to the big city where rents and overall living are expensive.
The global IT/ITeS corporations aren’t forcing employees back to office, at least not for now. They’re facing employee resistance to returning to office in other parts of the world and can’t insist their India employees be different. Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte and RPG Group, among others, are being flexible. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Accenture India’s HR managing director Lakshmi C.
The large Indian corporations are looking at policies that will enable them to get the best talent and also to be agile in the workspace. But they’re eager to get employees back to office. Coach and leadership development consultant Abhijit Bhaduri says, “most clients want you to be physically present for the offsites. They’re trying to make up for lost time.”
Then, there are the unicorns and the soonicorns, many of which have begun laying off people as cash gets tight and the ready money flow slows down. These smaller companies are, with a few exceptions, asking employees to return to office.
In India, employers may still have the upper hand, but change could be forced on them by what’s happening abroad. Take a look at the giant global banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase which initially insisted all employees must return to office. Morgan’s Dimon meticulously detailed the disadvantages of long-distance working including that it doesn’t “work for culture, doesn’t work for idea-generation.” He was backed by Sachs’ boss David Solomon.
Today, both Dimon and Solomon appear to be backing away from their hardline positions. Dimon now says the bank will only have space for 60 per cent of its employees to work in office. He adds 10 per cent will now work permanently from home and many or most will follow the hybrid WFH-office option. Why? Because of employee blowback.
But WFH isn’t the only potential change roiling the world of business. In the UK, 3,000 employees in 70 companies are taking part in experiment with a four-day working week. The deal is salaries won’t be reduced but work output must stay the same. A huge range of companies from ones in IT to banking services, skincare and healthcare are participating.
Similar experiments have been tried out in different parts of the world. Even before the pandemic in 2019 Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day work week for a month. The result, much to its surprise, was a 40 per cent boost in productivity. All meetings were capped at 30 minutes.
Also in Japan, which has famously brutal working hours stretching into the night, the country’s 2021 economic policy guidelines suggested adopting the four-day working week. Meantime, Dubai’s already adopted a four-and-a-half-day working week for its public-sector.
Will these changes seep down to India where many companies still operate a six-day week? It might seem unlikely soon but don’t forget changes happening across the globe have their impact here also. One thing for sure, though, is the world of work is going to look a whole lot different post-Covid compared with pre-Covid. Says Bhaduri: “There’s a lot of fluidity. It’s Day One of the next five years.”