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The Work From Home Revolution

By Ajit Balakrishnan
August 25, 2020 09:41 IST
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Will it trigger a social and management revolution as well, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

 

 

'Ajit, why are you so hands-on? Why don't you learn to delegate work to others and just do the supervision?' is friendly advice that I have been receiving from colleagues from my first day at work till even yesterday.

I guess I spent a lot of my time at work hammering away at the Facit calculating machine, when I first started working in the early 1970s and after graduating from IIM Calcutta, and since then with my head buried in personal computers.

When faced with such pieces of advice I have consistently returned a smile and said, 'I can't help it, I am descended from a good peasant stock who are used to working with their hands, with ploughs and grass cutting shears.'

The person who advises me on delegation would then quizzically look at me, trying to figure out whether I had made a caste-ist remark, and then conclude since I am not known for such things, I must have cracked a joke, and walk away.

Even a cursory glance at any management journal, for example, the Harvard Business Review, that bible of management, will have the article with headlines like 'To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well'.

Advice on the whys and hows of the delegation are aplenty: Here is one, also from the Harvard Business Review, 'There are plenty of reasons why managers don't delegate. Some are perfectionists who feel it's easier to do everything themselves, or that their work is better than others'.

A manager is consistently portrayed as a person who dresses well, speaks well, but does not dirty his own hands, either in a complex computation or in making a sales pitch to a potential customer, or does interviews and writes articles himself if he worked in a media company. He is supposed to hold meetings in posh conference rooms to 'co-ordinate' the work of others.

I strongly suspect the world of such hands-off managers is about to come to an abrupt end, thanks to COVID-19 and the advent of Work From Home.

The sudden flood of communication/sharing software tools is taking over much of the coordination and 'administration' role that managers traditionally used to perform.

Companies throughout the world are frantically trying to figure out what types of jobs to designate as Work From Home and what types of jobs to designate as Work From Office.

Should this division be based on how critical the job is for the organisation, with not-so-critical jobs being designated as Work From Home?

Will salary differentials that are based on this kind of separation start appearing?

Will these Work-From-Home jobs be then shifted to some sub-subcontractor, and thus become outsourced?

Maybe it is useful to pause for breath from these gloom-inducing prognostications and look back in history to learn some lessons.

To start with, the herding together of employees, first in factories and then in offices, is not all that ancient. The assumption that people working under one roof, under central direct supervision as a source of productivity-enhancement, dates back only to the First Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th century.

Richard Arkwright -- the inventor of the water frame, a large cotton spinning machine powered by a water-wheel -- found his machine too large to fit into a single house, so, he assembled all the people working on his water frame under one roof in a centralised location in Derbyshire, England, and called it Cromford Mill, the 'factory'.

Till then, all spinning and weaving of cloth had been done throughout the world by craftsmen working from home.

Just as Arkwright's water frame drove the creation and spread of the 'factory', it was the parallel growth of industries like banking, rail, insurance, and telegraphy that created the need for a large number of clerks needed to handle order processing, accounting, and document filing, which created the 'office'.

It is widely believed that the East India Company's location in Leadenhall Street, London, in 1729 from where an army of bureaucrats managed their colonial possessions was the first large 'office' in the world.

This growth of offices and factories has, since those early days, proceeded at a breath-taking pace, coming to symbolise 'modernity' and 'progress' and the earlier working at home became what provincial and retrograde people did.

The ambition of every middle-class kid, wherever in the world, became to get an 'office job'. Office jobs were 'modern'.

Very soon, 'business schools' sprung up, first in America and then elsewhere in the world, to research and preach the right and wrong ways to Work From Office.

Sociologists and psychologists collaborated and created theories of 'organisational behaviour', defining the roles, relationships and responsibilities of different individuals working from office. Even dress codes (jackets and ties) were prescribed.

The office job and its culture fitted in quite nicely with the feudal structure, particularly in India.

A 'managerial class' appeared that sat in enclosed cabins and 'supervised' the work of lesser mortals who sat in row after row of desks, shuffling papers and holding 'meetings' in conference rooms.

Many world-renowned organisations are considering converting 60 to 70 per cent of their employees into Work-From-Home workers.

This sudden and tectonic shift to a Work From Home system does raise deep questions on whether the sacred middle-class routine of getting-up-shaving-bathing-breakfast-off-to-work-work-in-office-all-day-commute-back is about to undergo a dramatic change.

Will management schools, including the IIMs, soon have to change their curricula and teach their students to work with their own hands as polytechnic and industrial training institutes do?

Ajit Balakrishnan (ajitb@rediffmail.com), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur and chaired a committee set up by the ministry of human resource development on education and entrepreneurship last year to provide inputs for the National Education Policy.

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