By Sourajit Aiyer
Many Asian companies, be it in India or elsewhere, often suffer a dilemma when it comes to managing their changing workplaces. On one side, they aspire their young workforce to perform the heights of productivity and output just like their Western counterparts. On the other, they often abhor letting go of the tight reins of control they have held for ages, under the assumption that control ensures employees work the hours they were paid for. The employees also suffer from a dilemma themselves. On one side, they want to put in the dedicated efforts in their work since they aspire to rise up the corporate ladder. On the other, since the social-infrastructure support systems are still not as developed here as they are in the West, they have to balance domestic and societal responsibilities along with their work, not to mention with fewer working hands in this age of nuclear families.
You cannot keep everyone happy in such conflicting situations, and Asian corporates are seeing their fair share of disgruntled employees, often amongst people who could have yielded so much better if they were given the flexibility to manage their timings in a way that allowed addressing all the pressing needs, at home or workplace. But that would mean the workplace losing its control to an extent, since it cannot visibly seeing employees working on their desks from 9 to 5. Few years ago, this suggestion would have been taboo. But now, few are accepting there may be some meat in allowing workplace flexibility, after all. Workplace flexibility may include working from other locations; during other timings; during other days; or on temporary functions. It is easier said than done, since the work-process has to fit in with flexibility. But even where that work does not offer room for flexibility, a bit of re-designing of the work-process can achieve that.
But the objective is not How, but Why? A lot of workplaces may question why they need to do it in the first place? If they let go of the control whip, wouldn’t that mean employees would be shirking from duties. After all, “when the cat cannot be seen, the mice tend to run around”! You would think most Asian workplaces still suffer from this myopic perspective. But that is now slowly changing, and the results are good. Some companies are trying out flexible practices if the work-processes allow it. The technology sector always led in this due to practices inherited from the Silicon Valley, but other sectors like finance are also working on this line.
The basic reason why results are good is because it serves a very fundamental need – of ensuring the people are happy; and happy employees make significantly productive employees. Companies who are yet to appreciate this fundamental aspect, but believe the control-whip works better in getting the meat out of people, may not be able to do that very long, since employees today have several options in this high-growth economic region. As per an Economic Times article, the average attrition rate of employees in India across sectors was touted to be 20%. This figure is similar even in neighbouring China, as per a 51job.com survey. These are big numbers.
Employees become happy because flexibility gives them the opportunity to finish a lot of duties, hence they can then devote a level of concentration to their work which is way higher than what they would, had they stuck to the strict regimen. Knowing that a lot of pressing duties were addressed at the right time when they needed to be, gives them a peace-of-mind that is unparalleled, and that peace-of-mind helps your concentration since your mind is now freer. You inherently feel more committed and motivated towards the work. On the other hand, if you could not address those duties at the right time, your head would be buzzing with so many urgent thoughts that your concentration, and output, would take a beating, although you were present in office the way your workplace intended you to be. If the company is happier with a less-productive employee sitting in office, rather than with a more-productive employee elsewhere, that is its wish.
Secondly, when you start valuing people more for their output, then their productivity rises even further. The traditional culture of valuing people for the time spent in office is changing to valuing people for getting the work done, in many organizations. Traditionally, many Asian companies have been guilty of judging the value of their people based on the hours they spend in office. If people are not staying late, that means they have not done enough work. No one ever looked at the productivity itself, whether the late-sitter actually did 9 hours of work after sitting in office for 12 hours. But in such companies, the 12-hour employee would be regarded better than the 9-hour one, since he was “seen” in office longer. Thankfully, this myopic perception is changing in many companies. In this era of high competition and end of the earlier protectionist business environment, the criticality of productivity and output is standing out more than ever. Companies just cannot afford to let people to sit on their desk and be unproductive. Finally, the work has to get done – and there is a better chance of the work being done in-time and properly when the person can devote adequate concentration on it.
Next, companies are realizing that workplace flexibility may save them overheads of running a full-steam office premise during times when high competition is often eating into operating margins. If some of the overhead cost can be transferred to the employee’s home, isn’t that a saving in itself?
Further, happier employees are aiding employee retention. It is no rocket-science that older employees are always cheaper than new recruits, not to mention the time spent in bringing the new joinee at par in the work. If key people are retained, it’s a win-win situation for both the organization and the person. One might also add that given the woeful public infrastructure in Asian cities, be it public transportation or road conditions, people spend on an average 3 hours a day in office-commute alone. You would be lucky if you spend less than that. Even if one assumes 3 hours, that’s actually 3 work-hours added if the person is based in his home.
Lastly, the era of gender-based roles is passé. Today, men and women share several domestic and societal duties. One of India’s leading banks recently allowed women the flexibility to work from home. But even men have domestic and societal duties, especially during new-borns. One of India’s leading capital market companies recently allowed paternity leave to its male employees, an excellent initiative in these evolving times.
Even then, workplace flexibility is still seen mostly for temporary work arrangements, not as a permanent arrangement. Once the temporary situation is manageable, the employee is expected to re-join the regimen. This could be a period of pregnancy, or a period of looking after ailing elders at home. Also, flexibility is still seen in more operational-process roles, not for front-line work. There is a cultural reason for this, since relationship-oriented Asian communities still prefer the face-to-face interaction when it comes to sales. Nothings firms up the relationship more than seeing the counterparty by face, and companies fear compromising on sales in case it impacts closure of the deal. Perhaps this will re-orient slowly towards an initial face-meeting backed by video-interactions later. Other challenges also remain – setting up the security systems at the other location to ensure data confidentiality is maintained, ensuring connectivity is of a quality that ensures no downtime, and ensuing ancillary tasks do not suffer since the person is not physically in office. But these are not unsolvable either.
Bottomline: Flexibility creates happy employees, and happy employees make productive employees. That ideally results in more green, than red, in the company’s results. Some Asian organizations are seeing sense in it, while the others may hopefully do so in coming times.
About Sourajit Aiyer
Sourajit Aiyer works with a leading capital markets company in Mumbai. Previously, he worked with financial companies in Delhi, London and Dhaka. As a personal interest, he writes for business publications and runs his comics page. He has written on over 60 topics in 30 publications across 13 countries. He is the author of the E-Book, “Flying with the Winged Elephant: Niche business themes that may emerge in India”. His news/satire comics page is now on Facebook, “Sourajit Aiyer Comics”.