Present vs. Productive: The New Corporate Catch 22
We want our employees to work fast, sharp and be happy about it. Yet, we weigh them down with the #PresenceParadox
Photo Credit : Shutterstock,
A few weeks ago, I witnessed something strange at an industry conference. I was part of a panel discussion on how new-age chat-based collaboration is displacing conventional workplace paradigms, including the need for employees to always be present in office. And afterwards during a tea-break huddle of CXOs, HR managers and senior employees, I heard many of them say: “That will never work in India.”
This attitude about the importance of employees being present in office caught me off-guard. These business leaders were not negating a new way of collaboration based on reasons related to economics, process-impact, risk, or security – their outright dismissal was based on an assumption, or worse, a prejudice.
People find it difficult to grasp that even if employees are chatting away on a phone, or are not right in front of a boss’s eyes, they could still be working. Being under someone’s thumb does not necessarily accelerate productivity – but we continue to play ostrich and bury our heads time and again, deep inside our own prejudices.
We are unfortunately trapped too deep in the #PresenceParadox. We have come to blindly accept that being ‘present’ is a synonym of being ‘productive’.
The irony of a ‘work’-place
There could be nothing more contradictory than this assumption - especially when you consider the skyrocketing rentals and simultaneous infrastructure deficit that stares at corporate India. According to a report by Cushman & Wakefield and GRI, net office absorption across the top eight cities in India shot up by 10% to 32.5 msf in 2017. Further, according to the same report, cumulative annual growth of office absorption is expected to increase to 3% until 2020.
This trend can be seen in other countries as well. In London, in the first quarter of 2016, flexible office providers showed an appetite of about 180,000 sq ft across Central London, according to Knight Frank. In the US, 37% of employees stated that they worked remotely in 2015, up from only 9% in 1995, according to Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey.
When we look at other countries, Flexi and tele are, coming up as new prefixes across the world. This makes not just ‘millennial’ sense but ‘CFO’ sense too if we consider the toll that parking expenses and travel downtime take on overall productivity. What jumps out in a white paper by commercial real estate firm Avison Young, is that employee productivity and direct parking costs see the maximum correction when employees’ commuting time is reduced.
HR hangover and the #PresenceParadox
Let’s come to a more practical and number-oriented debate. In the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Fonner, K. and Roloff, M. argue that higher job satisfaction can indeed be associated with the fact that employees who work from home avoid many stressful scenarios such as office politics, meetings, unwanted interruptions and information overload.
But I will not dismiss certain lingering concerns, such as those related to team performance. MIT research has revealed that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance could be accounted for by the number of face-to-face interactions. Yes, there tends to be some in-group/out-of-group biases and learning curves when it comes to working remotely; but telework, per se, does not connote isolation and bias. Today’s tools fill in the blanks for yesteryear’s tools by way of cool, fluid, easy-breezy, well-integrated, information-rich apps that can address the issue of feeling left out or less productive, if any.
So why does a major part of corporate India rigidly perpetrate the #PresenceParadox? Nothing could be more self-defeating and wrongly-timed. It’s not just against the rental, parking cost and congestion rationale, but also about unnecessary traffic gridlocks, surges in particulate matter, and frustrated in-transit employees – why do we exacerbate pollution by forcing people to commute?
A relatively-poor infrastructure, a rising population, increasing real-estate costs and environmental impact on one side; and then an increasing level of global collaboration being undertaken on the other side, confirm India as one of those few countries that could squeeze out the most impact and gains from flexible working models, with employees working from a variety of locations (home, office, on the road, third party locations etc). Sadly and counter-intuitively; professional India’s ‘commute-9-to-5-commute’ mentality prevents any of these benefits from being realised.
Stop spinning your wheels
Let’s stop and ask ourselves some tough but relevant questions. Do we really need our employees to commute when they can do the ‘same’ and may I add without arrogance, some ‘better’, ‘edgier’, ‘smarter’, ‘way faster’ work than what they manage when they are ‘in front of one’s eyes’? Do bosses actually like babysitting more than getting amazing work done at top speeds, and, while having frictionless fun?
The new breed of collaboration tools, including messenger apps, is equipped with more than the usual chat-scape comfort and convenience. They come with more muscle and offer greater document control, security and enterprise-relevant extensions, making work more effortless, fun and fluid for an employee.
A happy employee - who has better work-life balance, stress-free hours and good health - can deliver top-grade work without all the fretting and fuming.
There is actually no proven correlation between physical presence at work and employee productivity; and particularly in the case of knowledge-based organisations. The quantum of potential benefits of flexible working is higher in India than in any other major market, but this potential is matched only by the level of institutional and organisational resistance to implementing the same. I strongly feel that India, of all the places in the world, needs to wrap its head around the #PresenceParadox. We don’t need people to add to pollution, expensive real estate, office rentals, cluttered parking lots, smoggy skies and bad work days anymore than we already struggle with. We don’t need people to come half-heartedly, tired and drained to just warm up office seats. We need them to work. Wherever they are. All we need to do is empower them with the best of the tools. India needs this mindset shift NOW – and we need this not less, but more.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
Around The World