Without doubt, the benefits of working from home are many. Employers are cutting down on costs, while employees feel they are more productive. Tata Consultancy Services has announced that it will move 75 per cent of its employees to a permanent work-from-home setup by 2025. Flexible work timings was a concept frowned upon, until the pandemic came along forcing everyone to stay indoors 24×7. Today, organisations are also talking about a hybrid way of working, where half the workforce works from home while the other half goes to the office. This model of work is expected to ensure the safety of the employees, while avoiding any disruption of work.
However, having spent the past six months at home, glued to their laptops, endeavouring to give their best, people have now started experiencing a sense of fatigue. Many believe it can dent creativity and restrict innovation. It is an accepted fact that social relationships and human interactions breed creativity. It gives enough fodder to employees’ imaginations for ideation. Social connectivity is known to result in collaborative productivity, which helps a company improve communication and efficiency.
Research has proved that while working from home, employees miss the ability to walk up to a colleague’s desk and discuss an issue. Therefore, the question is, ‘Can a remote working setup in the future compromise the creativity and innovativeness that employees otherwise bring to the table?’
“Although we can simulate the physical office environment through innovative technology-driven virtual platforms, with constant access and connect, it is impossible to replicate the touch, feel and smell of the brick and mortar workplace.”
Jayati Roy, director-HR, Barco India, was relieved to go back to office. “I think this constant sitting at home and working is causing fatigue amongst people. This fatigue is impacting creativity and innovation. There was a time when the occasional webinar was eagerly attended by everyone. Now, there is a deluge of webinars, and they all appear to be the same — mere rehashes of the same topic. A lot of us, especially I, used to spend the one and a half hour of commuting time, reading. With work from home, one is expected to be available at all times and capable of dialling in anytime. The energy and mind space required for creativity to thrive is diminishing.” Roy also points out that discussions that took 15 minutes to close, with people sitting across the table, interacting and sharing thoughts, now take 35-45 minutes to arrive at a consensus.
Some HR experts also believe that in India, watercooler conversations have taken a big hit. These were breaks looked forward to after a few hours of focussed and intense work. Now, for such conversations, one has to excuse oneself from a meeting perhaps, and connect.
However, there are also other HR professionals who feel creativity and innovativeness are just a state of mind.
Rahul Sinha, president-HR, Pidilite, firmly believes that it’s all about mindset. “Individuals alone were responsible for most innovations that have taken place around the world till date. Creativity and innovativeness are not a function of corporate life. It is a function of the mindset. Several novels were written during World War II from within jails and in solitary confinement. So how does creativity get impacted by whether one is in office or at home? It gets impacted by the environment in which one is operating and to that extent, the company has the responsibility to provide a conducive environment. That is fundamental to who we are as an individuals,” Sinha asserts.
“In the last few months, the shift to ‘virtual’ has led to many innovative practices. It has really pushed people to think out of the box. For instance, virtual inspection, which was unheard of before, has become a reality now.”
Amit Das, director- HR, Bennett, Coleman & Co (Times of India Group), reminds us that human beings are social animals, and physical proximity-led social interactions release the hormone oxytocin in our brain, which makes us feel happy. “We can invent alone, but innovation needs collaborative effort. Creativity is all about collective intelligence having fun with diverse ideas and perspectives.”
He rightly points out that a creative work life requires social relationships and serendipitous interactions. Therefore, as an obvious transition to the next normal — with hybrid work arrangements across organisations — when a substantial part of our workforce will need to work remotely away from office, we need to deal with the associated challenges. That will include impact on the sense of belongingness, emotional connect, workplace bonding and inclusivity amongst the employees. Hence, it is imperative that we leverage the new-age technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) driven social- enterprise tools and sociometrics, to drive collaboration and engagement. This, in turn, will stimulate the workforce to participate and actively contribute to idea generation. It will push them to think innovatively as creative disruptors, beyond their defined scope of work. However, “We need to keep in mind that although we can simulate the physical office environment through innovative technology-driven virtual platforms, with constant access and connect, it is impossible to replicate the same to the extent where we can touch, feel, see and smell the brick and mortar workplace.”
“It gets impacted by the environment in which one is operating and to that extent, the company has the responsibility to provide a conducive environment. That is fundamental to who we are as an individuals.”
Sachin Narke, head-HR and chief learning officer, Forbes Marshall, seconds the thought that innovation cannot be constrained by distractions. “In fact, in the last few months, the shift to ‘virtual’ has led to many innovative practices. It has really pushed people to think out of the box. In my experience, many new ways of working have come up. For instance, we are in a business where we have always believed in establishing a relationship of trust with the customers. As a part of our business policy, we must build a rapport with the customers and visit them. Going by that logic, now that we cannot meet them physically, our business should have gone down. However, our customers also understood the circumstances and appreciated our new model of operations, which makes us confident of getting business even if this situation prolongs,” Narke points out. He agrees that while the warmth of meeting people is deeply missed, new ways to enhance innovations have emerged. To prove his point, Narke goes on to inform how virtual inspection, which was unheard of before, has become a reality now.
With such diverse points of view on the subject, the question that comes to our mind is, ‘What can companies do to endorse a healthy work environment, which can bolster the creative process?’ Roy suggests, “We have to start building an ecosystem around work — what can one do other than work? Once the pandemic is over, people can engage in hobbies because I believe absolute zero human interaction is not going to help. At least not in our generation. May be the next generation that is getting schooled this way may manage.”
With work from home, one is expected to be available at all times and capable of dialling in anytime. The energy and mind space required for creativity to thrive is diminishing.
As for Sinha, the answer is simple. Companies must ensure that engaging and interactive activities continue even when not working in the office environment, to bring in variety to an employee’s life. “Everyone has a core job which they do for a living and which they have adjusted to doing in the new normal, in the past few months. But a counter balance is required, which can be achieved by assigning them other projects that will give them some variety, and encouraging them to participate in engagement activities and other social engagement setups. They can communicate with people who are not doing the same job.” He also insists that employees should get a chance to socialise and make work more engaging.
The HR fraternity seems divided on whether or not remote working stunts creativity and innovation. However, given the fact that remote working may become a permanent reality in many places in the future, this is one more aspect that HR professionals may want to look into!