The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about sweeping changes to the nature of work across the world. Health risks of the traditional, physically co-located office have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of organisations that have mandated their employees to telecommute or work from home. It also seems that this tide sweeping through organisations is unlikely to roll back anytime soon.
In a recent survey, companies across diverse sectors, including Tech Mahindra, Maruti, Myntra and Whirlpool, noted that only a fraction of their employees would be returning to work in the post-Covid world.
As organisations hasten to adopt hybrid work models and, in some cases, dispense with physical co-location entirely, it becomes critical to understand the consequences of remote work practices on employee productivity and well-being. Does work-from-home work for all?
Are certain classes of jobs more likely to be affected?
Our research suggests that remote work practices, while crucial for slowing the spread of the virus and reducing pressures on the healthcare infrastructure, won’t be easy for certain types of jobs. Jobs vary in their Need for Human Proximity (NHP) or the extent to which their execution requires inter-personal contact.
We used a 2019 survey of over 3,000 employees across a wide range of sectors to develop NHP scores for each of the over 100 job types listed in the 2004 National Classification of Occupations (NCO). We then use the distribution of different jobs within each sector as indicated in the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) to estimate sector-level NHP scores (see Figure).
The scores are pre-pandemic measures that do not reflect adjustments to job design made by employees or organisations in response to Covid-19 restrictions.
A survey of over 400 employees working remotely in May 2020 (that is, after the lockdown was effected in India) confirmed that the impact of remote work varies by NHP. Employees in high NHP sectors experience significantly greater productivity losses and isolation than those in low NHP sectors, suggesting that these employees are especially vulnerable to restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.
The absence of interpersonal contact that employees in these jobs and sectors are accustomed to not only hampers communication and coordination on the job and ultimately, productivity but also has adverse psychological outcomes. Physical presence, habitual human connections, and opportunities to form social bonds at the workplace enhance employee well-being and job satisfaction.
Can technology help compensate for some of the downsides of remote work?
Electronic media like Skype and Zoom definitely help mitigate some of the communication and collaboration challenges at work. However, our survey found that the use of these video-conferencing software yields greater productivity gains for employees in high-NHP jobs than for those in low-NHP jobs.
Since the onset of the pandemic, several organisations have initiated substantial investments toward developing technological infrastructure in order to support remote work arrangements. Such investments are disproportionately likely to benefit employees in jobs with high NHP and, therefore, organisations should prioritise directing such investments to specific business units and sectors that have a higher proportion of employees working in high-NHP jobs.
However, and importantly, our study did not find evidence of disproportionate benefit of video-conferencing use on experience of isolation between high- and low-NHP jobs. In other words, those in high-NHP jobs suffer from higher levels of isolation than those in low NHP jobs regardless of intensity of video-conferencing use.
It is possible that those in high-NHP jobs continue to feel isolated despite the use of video-conferencing because these technologies impose structured and formal interactions with little room for informal interpersonal engagement that builds cohesiveness and reduces isolation. This suggests that organisations may benefit from the use of informal virtual interactions among employees, such as virtual events that have been observed on social media over the past few months.
Another possibility is that technology-facilitated interactions do not adequately transmit socio-behavioural cues required to develop and sustain close interpersonal relationships that reduce isolation. In this case, employers might need to supplement virtual interactions with periodic face-to-face engagement for high-NHP jobs.
What can organisations do?
It is important for organisations to pay heed to specific job characteristics while instating long-term remote work policies. Tailored policies that take into account idiosyncratic benefits and costs of remote work for a specific job profile are likely to serve organisations better than sweeping remote work arrangements that ignore the amenability of different job types to remote work.
Our findings also highlight the need for organisations to invest in strategies that minimise communication and coordination challenges resulting from remote work, especially in high-NHP jobs. One option is to invest in redesigning jobs such that the redesigned tasks require relatively lower levels of communication for effective task execution.
This “modularisation” of jobs involves breaking up a system of activities into several loosely coupled sub-systems, identifying the data-intensive components that can be automated, and defining interfaces that capture all the interactions between sub-systems. Open source systems such as Linux and Android and examples of work that rely on modularisation to coordinate distributed effort. However, not all tasks are likely to be amenable to such reformulation. Thus, alternatively, it is important for organisations to create avenues for rich communication opportunities among employees in high-NHP jobs while working remotely.
Nikhil Madan is Assistant Professor, and Deepa Mani is Professor, at Indian School of Business. Madan Pillutla is Professor at London Business School.