A 13-year head start: Lessons learnt from a company that started WFH more than a decade ago
Posted by: Uma Shashikant on Jun 22, 2020, 11.20 AM IST
Work from home is quite the cool thing now. Thirteen years ago, when we began a firm that only had a virtual office, many did not think our model would work. Now that everyone is telling us the stories we had a tough time telling earlier, we feel so vindicated. But will this fascination last?
When we began Ciel, our premise was simple. There were many women like us, keen to pursue a professional career, but unwilling to let go of the responsibilities of home and of raising children. We all had years of experience going to work. Of being torn between work and home. Ciel was our model to work from home and work as if that did not matter. We did well for ourselves.
We made rules. We would log in at specific times. We would not take a break from work for anything other than kids and school. We would not suffer follow up, but stick to deadlines. The model worked wonderfully. We made elaborate process innovations to make sure our clients did not worry about us working from home.
The advantages were many. Without direct supervision and micro management, creativity and innovation happened at unexpected places. Even junior resources became adept at problem solving. We were great collaborators. One stood in for the other seamlessly since we all had our need for flexible hours. We were there when the children came home, and that was precious.
There were limitations as well. Some tasks that could be easily explained in person, took a long time on phone and on remote computer screens. Reading long documentations wasn’t easy for everyone. We reworked many a time. Sometimes we found it tough to collaborate. Sometimes we just missed the buzz of going out and meeting people. But we did very well overall and built a good business with a committed team.
Now that work from home has become the norm and that many are questioning whether this is indeed a better way to work, what would someone like us who have used this model long enough have to say about it?
First, the orientation towards problem solving needs a change. To work from home is to trust that problems can be solved by discussion and application of mind. There is no need to travel, or spend time and energy on multiple in-person meetings. To do that, everyone must focus on the problem at hand, and be willing to put in the hours, know the details, and listen in to the points others are making. That is much more demanding than sauntering into a meeting without homework and making a few off the cuff suggestions and getting off lightly. There is a lot of shrugging off real work and wasting other’s time that happens when it is easy to walk over and speak to a colleague.
Second, there must be ownership of the task on hand. The ability to work independently without being supervised and micromanaged is precious. Not everyone acquires it easily. More so when accountability is not clear. When tasks are not defined well, responsibility not assigned, many team members do not know how to proceed. Without active mentoring, they struggle to find their place and be responsible for their deliverables. Front ending possible questions, taking the time to clarify, being available to problem solve, are all essential to enable resources to grow. This behavior from the manager and the managed is an acquired skill.
Third, teams draw their energies from various sources. Some thrive with interactions and in social settings that involve many people. Some are content doing their assigned task and interacting as required for its completion. There are many degrees of variation between these two extremes. An office setting enables a quicker formulation and solving of a problem without taking the time for too much detailing, if the team enjoys the in-person brainstorming. Working from home can be frustrating when simpler issues take longer to resolve. An enabling environment is important.
Fourth, working from home means giving up perks of the job. The power dressing, travel, flights and the attendant importance, the social signals of the car you drive and the places you meet for lunch, and the power games with cohorts will all be gone. You won’t exactly become a recluse, but you would struggle drawing the line between work and home, spending your day juggling the two. You will trade a lot of glamour for slog, and that might get to you.
Fifth, there is a lot to be said for the culture of the workplace and the team spirit it nurtures. Working from home needs special attention to these aspects so that the team feels that it belongs in a community that nurtures, cares and also furthers professional growth. Without a formal setting for interpersonal interaction, a lot can remain unsaid and unknown. That can be a challenge especially during tough times.
The world will most likely try to get the best of both worlds. Many understand the futility of daily commute, long hours, and wasted time in an overdose of interpersonal interaction.
We see an increased effort to make rules and stick to the discipline of work hours, breaks, and completion of tasks to deadline. Many homes now have designated work areas where members are able to work undisturbed. This experiment is a worthy one. It offers the opportunity to question wasteful practices. Some business have begun to wonder if they overdid the idea of office—its grandeur and cost—when people seem to be doing fine from home. Many parents worry about returning to work while it is unknown when the kids will return to school.
This experiment could lead to a healthy mix of working from office and out of home. That might be a happy outcome as families get to manage their time better. There are jobs that require physical presence at the workplace.The realisation that a bulk of the others can be efficiently completed without being too fussy about where they are done from, is nice. Some relief from the rat race of commuting and long hours is good for all of us.