Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Apr 21, 2020
The pandemic has presented a window of opportunity to reimagine the way we work and imbibe the flexibility to try new ideas such as telecommuting.
Telecommuting to a green future The last few weeks have witnessed widespread practice of social distancing measures as nations have responded to the contagion in varying capacities. As the world stays at home, the planet appears to be benefitting in ways that are distinctly traceable. An unintentional but thoroughly illuminating global experiment is currently underway as industrial activity has come to halt and human movement remains restricted. The air quality has distinctly improved in the urban areas. A reduction of industrial and urban effluents draining into the rivers has convinced government authorities in India to undertake studies to ascertain if the lockdown had a direct role in improving the water quality. However, most of these changes are transitory and will cease to exist as soon as the global economy gears up to bounce back from the momentary economic downturn. It is in this context that there is a need to look beyond the mirage of ‘nature is healing’ and critically distill the major takeaway for creating lasting change.

The ‘nudge’ to reimagine how we work

The Indian government was quick to issue an advisory to companies on 19 March to formulate policy that facilitates employees to ‘Work from Home’. This was subsequently followed by a nationwide lockdown from 25 March which further provided the thrust to companies and institutions to embrace a new paradigm of work from home. Remote working that was earlier seen as an excuse by India Inc. has suddenly emerged as a viable alternative to continue operations in these unprecedented times. The commonly held perception that telecommuting is not as effective and leads to a decline in work efficiency, seems to have changed as companies are showing a greater willingness to continue with the idea even after the second phase of the lockdown ends on 3 May. The Indian bureaucracy has also shown a remarkable readiness for a ‘cultural shift’ to migrate to a digital platform of work. The forward-looking vision of creating an online platform called e-Office by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) almost four years ago had been instrumental in facilitating this shift. Similarly, the Indian courts have also migrated from an offline framework of functioning to an online one with electronic filings, email exchanges and even hearings through the means of videoconferencing. Observers have called it a ‘tectonic shift’ in the functioning of our legal system and have advocated its complete adoption on the basis of the potential that it holds in the long-run to address many a malaise affecting the judicial processes. Technology has also kept pace with the needs of the time and the increased usage of Virtual Private Network (VPN) and cloud-based services has ensured that work can be seamlessly done from the comfort of homes. This abrupt and unplanned shift has also come with short-term contingencies like reduced bit rate for popular platforms like YouTube, Netflix and Facebook to mitigate network congestion in mobile and broadband connections. However, it is certain that the digital infrastructure of the future will only be an enabler of a shift to telecommute. But, will it also hold water in terms of an increased acceptance and a sustained behavioural change towards adoption of this new way of working?

The dynamics of behavioural change

It is only a matter of time before a solution is found to permanently resolve the crisis and begin the process of economic reconstruction. In a post-COVID-19 scenario, telecommuting will remain an attractive proposition for a business as it provides enormous opportunities like reducing operating costs and drawing employees from a wider talent pool. However, the assessment needs to include employees in tandem and systematically inquire whether a behavioural shift to telecommuting can be maintained in the long run. The following table shows the conditional aspects of the behavioural change towards adoption of telecommuting as an alternative to the way we work. It relies on the themes identified by Kwasnicka et al. (2016) and points out the imperatives for ensuring the sustainability of the practice.
Conditions Behavioural Change Dynamics (BCD) Sustainability
Motivation to maintain a behaviour. Behaviour is more likely to be sustained if the reinforcement structure emphasises immediate and affective outcomes rather than long-term and rational outcomes. The opportunity to work from the comfort of home and to maintain a positive work-life balance will provide an intrinsic motivation for behavioural change. The impact of such a positive change would be immediate and tangible to further create a feedback-loop for sustaining the changed behaviour. This appears to be the single-most important factor since this alternative presents an opportunity to bypass the ordeals of daily commute in congested urban areas.
Self-regulation Self-regulation refers to any effort to actively control behaviour by inhibiting dominant and automatic behaviours, urges, emotions or desires, and replacing those with goal-directed responses Adaptive mechanisms will reinstate the transition to telecommute in general and will allow individuals to overcome lapses in the changed behaviour and a tendency to revert to the previous behavioural patterns. The motivation to maintain the behavioural pattern in the interest of one’s overall wellbeing will override the need for self-regulation. Individuals would actively seek to adapt to reduce any opportunity costs for the changed behaviour like using more interactive features to communicate ideas. The process is most sustainable if the need for self-regulation can be completely eliminated. To reach such a milestone, the technological advancement and an increased adoption of such technology needs to reduce the opportunity cost of being physically present in order to undertake any individual or group activity.
Resources Resources are psychological and physical assets that can be drawn on during the process of behavioural regulation. Telecommuting will add to the endowment of psychological and physical resources in terms of a healthy state of mind, lower levels of mental and physical fatigue, increased savings etc. Moreover, the continuation of physical spaces to allow individuals to come together under one roof will ensure that individuals will have the flexibility to revert to their previous conditions of co-working and co-learning. A flexible approach is the key since workers draw a lot of psychological resources from social connections developed in workplaces.
Habits They develop after a substantial period of successful self-regulation which allow the individuals or groups to move beyond the need to perform the behaviour outside conscious awareness. Since, the process will be largely an adaptation-driven one, relegation of habits associated with telecommuting to lower levels of consciousness, is inevitable. However, it would be important to develop new, favourable habitual cue responses of coworking remotely and a repeated association with some new stimuli of work to expedite the process of behavioural change. Since the shift will be largely adaptive, habits will develop as a consequence of regular iteration. However, individuals need to be guided to respond to a new stimulus to accomplish a task and employers need to develop mechanisms to further such a cue.
Contextual (Environment and Social Influence) The changed work-environment and the collective shift to the virtual space will provide a window of opportunity to maintain and guide the emerging habitual behaviour in a functional manner. The social influence to guide individuals to follow the social norms and rules are presently overarching with the prevalence of calls to ‘stay at home’ and ‘flatten the curve’. A sustained effort to create an awareness around positive impacts of telecommuting like reducing one’s carbon footprint, increasing the quality of life etc. will be instrumental in ensuring that the contextual factors remain effective in the long-run

The larger argument

The pandemic has presented a window of opportunity to reimagine the way we work and imbibe the flexibility to try new ideas such as telecommuting. The latest report by McKinsey Global Institute also chart out a roadmap for a digital leap in India specifying that companies need build their capacity to harness the technological dividend of the times and react quickly to the evolving dynamics of doing business. The government can further leverage the opportunity to include this as one of the strategies to reduce urban traffic congestions and poor air quality. By and large, the factors that would influence a behavioural shift towards telecommuting remain favourable. The acceptance of working remotely has grown over the years and the present crisis will be an additional leap in that direction. However, based on the analysis, it is important to recognise that telecommuting is not a replacement for having a physical space for work related engagements. Humans are hardwired for social cooperation and the workplace is an extension of the social space of an individual. Similarly, a change in the way large-scale business operations are carried out during the crisis period while adapting to the emerging situation and devising new mechanisms will be critical for establishing telecommute as a viable alternative. A sustained effort is required to leverage the conditional shift that has taken place in favour of telecommute and put it in the agenda of affirmative action for tackling the crisis of deteriorating air quality in the cities. Opportunities arise only when the status quo is disturbed by emerging challenges and it is important to latch onto such opportunities for a greater positive impact.
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Sayanangshu Modak

Sayanangshu Modak

Sayanangshu Modak was a Junior Fellow at ORFs Kolkata centre. He works on the broad themes of transboundary water governance hydro-diplomacy and flood-risk management.

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