Remote working — The Indian context
Could it be the solution to Bangalore’s traffic problem after all?
Commute to work, in a city like Bangalore, which is also the biggest ‘Software Hub’ in India, can be a nightmare! And, the situation only seems to have gotten worse!
I remember being stuck in a horrible traffic pile up where it took me close to an hour to cover a mere 3km distance.. and I had to clock another 13km. A vehicle must have broken down somewhere I guess! So, I remember calling my manager and telling him, “Hey, the traffic seems to be a mess today, and there’s no way on earth I could reach office anytime soon. This stress is really getting to me! I’d rather go back and work from home today.”
And guess what his response was? “Hi Kasi, I’m afraid, this can’t be considered a legit reason. May be you should start leaving earlier to work instead. I’d like to see you in office even if you were to reach a bit late. Cheers!” I was baffled by what I just heard! How efficient can someone be after starting their day on a horrible note? Are we really okay with that?
What is more important? — Getting sh*t done (or) Being in office?
If you work in the city or have teams based here at Bangalore, you wouldn’t be a stranger to this conversation. People spend an average of about 1.5hours to cover a mere 15km distance to their workplace. If we were to do a rough math.. that’s a staggering 70 hours/month that is spent commuting to work and back! In other words, the average Bangalorean spends 8days/month just driving through traffic!
Here are some of the workarounds that the people of the city have come up with, in order to battle the situation.
- Using local transport (Despite lack of comfort, proximity, timeliness) — Checked
- Carpooling — Checked
- Uber (Irrespective of drivers cancelling requests repeatedly) — Checked
- Availing office cabs — Checked
- Working remotely 1 day/week — Checked
- Bike rental services — Checked
- Cycling to work (despite the chances of pollution and the lack of bicycle lanes killing you)— Checked
- Housing closer to workplace (Forget the dust, noise, cramped roads, proximity from the city and lack of facilities) — Checked
- Offices coordinating their work timings with the neighboring offices to ensure congestion is reduced – Checked
Trends have shown that people pre-pone their working hours just to escape traffic. Three years ago, had you to leave to work by 7:40am, chances are you could cover a distance of 15km in under 35 — 40 minutes! And this, is super-awesome considering the city’s standards!
But, what happens when the entire city tries leaving home “a little early”? That’s when the definition of ‘peak hour’ traffic changes from 8:00am to 7:40am. And, in the attempt of negating that situation, some start leaving home ‘a bit earlier’. So, the following year, 7:15am becomes the new ‘peak hour’. And as of today, tech-firms have cabs picking-up employees from home as early as 6:30/6:45am just to avoid traffic!
The question is, how long are we going to continue with this unsustainable circus?
Why can’t we just adapt to working remote instead?
The world is evolving and teams are becoming more global. There is a need to connect with each other more frequently than in the past. So isn’t it high time that firms stop shying away from this phenomenon called “Work from home” and start adapting better practices around it? Sure, it takes a lot of discipline, accountability and trust between organizations, managers and teams. But, it certainly isn’t impossible to inculcate.
Let’s face it! Remote working is going to be the norm sooner than we know.
I recently had the opportunity to witness a talk by Stu Smith, a fellow product designer from Atlassian’s Trello at a local conference in Bangalore.
To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming to see a packed hall that morning. You had people stand and witness the talk since all the seats were taken! Seems like Bangalore was drawn into the concept of ‘Remote Working’, and wanted to understand how teams at Trello functioned so successfully with their ‘Remote — first’ approach!
I had quite a few takeaways from Stu’s talk personally, and we will touch upon some of them in the later half of this essay. But for this concept to work successfully in a city like Bangalore, I strongly believe we might want to take into account the ‘Indian’ context.
What does the phrase “Work from Home” mean to India?
- I’m not keeping well, and would like to stay back and work from home
- I need to take care of my child / parent who needs me to be around today
- There’s a lot of work (project related) to complete, so I’d rather stay back at home and have some focus time
- I have personal work to attend to today, so chances are I’ll be offline for an hour or two.
- I just don’t feel like taking the effort to drive down to office, so I’ll stay back and work today
- I’ve had an exhausting couple of days, so I’d like to chill at home today and not do much
- I just want to be a passive participant today
- I am going out of town this Friday to visit my parents / in-laws and plan on working from there, and spending the weekend with them. Why waste a paid-leave?
In India, a ‘Work-from-home’ email is usually sent to one’s boss during one of the above situations (or a few others). You might be wondering what’s different about that!
The most commonly used excuse when someone wants to work from home is either Point 1 or 2. Notice, how I used the word ‘excuse’, as opposed to ‘reason / situation’. Does that mean Points 3–8 don’t qualify as valid reasons to work remotely? Well, it usually depends on one’s manager and their organization to an extent. If you are lucky enough to have a good boss, that’s great! Else, get your a** back to work!
Strange isn’t it? Let’s take Point 3 for instance. An employee wants to stay back in order to have some focus time and complete their work with minimal distraction. But, do you think this would qualify for a legitimate reason? I’d have rather gone with my safer bets — Option 1, where I am not keeping well.. or Option 2 which is even better, where I need to take care of my kid or parent instead!
Absolute bullsh*t right? That’s exactly how most global tech organizations across the country seem to be functioning (except for a few). We tend to forget the human aspect of our teams. There are days when one is ready to accelerate through their day to a 100% potential, and then there are days when one prefers being more passive.. May be they are going through a rough patch personally.. or it could just be the weekend’s hangover! There might be someone who has problems of Traffic-anxiety (its a thing now!), that the very thought of stepping into their car, haunts them and they just don’t want to see Bangalore’s roads for a week! Aren’t we human after all?
What’s funny is, every manager is well aware of the fact that their team mates are bluffing about ‘having a flu’ or the fact that their ‘child has fallen ill’. But, they also understand that it is important for their subordinates to stay back (for what ever reason) and attend to personal chores while delivering office related tasks, and hence approve these requests without a fuss!
If you take my manager who denied my request when I gave “traffic” as the reason for instance, he never really had problems with me working remotely on other days as long as my excuse was ‘valid enough’ (which is Point 1 and 2). So, why wouldn’t they just acknowledge these requests more openly instead? Who are we afraid off? Why is someone expected to lie every time they considered working from home? Better still, does one even need to give reasons to work remotely in today’s world?
Isn’t it the WORK that matters as opposed to when and where an individual chooses to work from?
It’s high time that organizations stopped fooling themselves with useless policies that makes no sense whatsoever in today’s world and started focusing more on making the lives of their employees more happier and easier, so that they could deliver to their maximum potential.
Finally, as promised, here are some of my takeaways from Stu Smith’s talk on remote working and how we could make it a reality in a country like India.
- Trust — The most important factor. Let’s acknowledge the fact that people can be more efficient if let alone by themselves as opposed to being micro-managed. India as a country, has only recently started adapting to this approach, which is a good sign. But as a culture, we sure have a long way to go in terms of allowing people and teams to work on their terms and decide autonomously.
- Video conferencing (vs) Audio conferencing — Let’s try and choose to do more video calls as opposed to audio calls. This helps connect with your team more intimately. You could choose to go on audio once in a while, but there is nothing stronger than looking at each other’s body language. This is only going to help negate so many inaccurate assumptions we make about our fellow teammates.
- If one person is on video, then every one must be too — Incase you have one person attending a meeting via ‘Video Conference’, then everybody in the team needs to take the call from their desks. You don’t want to have just one person floating on the LCD screen while the rest of team is sitting together in a room. Being sensitive to a teammate and sharing a platform that allows everybody to contribute equally, is very crucial for remote working to be successful.
- Capitalize on tools — Not being at office, could be a bit of a disadvantage especially because you don’t get to be with colleagues physically. So staying in touch and interacting with your peers is super-important. Use tools like Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, Mural, Slack, Teams or whatever your organization uses. Make the max out of it!
- Share your work often — This one’s more for those that plan on working remote for a longer duration as opposed to the people that work remotely for a day or two each week. But, nevertheless, sharing your work (irrespective of what ever stage it is in), as often and as early as you can, is super crucial. Especially, if you are not in office with the rest of the team physically! There needs to be some way in which everybody is aware of what you are are working on and can be part of your process. This isn’t necessarily micromanaging, but keeping everybody in the loop helps bring a great deal of professionalism and builds trust in your ability to work autonomously.
- Communicate — Being vocal and communicating often and openly is very crucial for a remote worker. Incomplete work, misjudged estimates, unfulfilled commitments etc could only lead to misunderstandings. Having regular 1:1’s with your managers, team-members, sub-ordinates more often and ensuring everyone is on the same page, could make life a lot easier for you and for your team.
- Do kickass work — Lastly, action speaks louder than words. All that your organization cares about, is what value you bring to the table. Show them that by doing the best work possible! Remember, it only takes a hand full of bad employees to screw up trust within the organisation. Hope you ain’t one of them!
Think about it Bangalore! The solution to our traffic problem, is right here. All it needs is, some discipline, practice and a good work ethic. Cheers!