Work from home: a boon or a bane? The missing piece of employee cost.

AuthorBathini, Dharma Raju

A couple of months back, chief of India's largest bank, the State Bank of India, stated that her company is exploring the feasibility of allowing its female employees to work from home ("SBI Studies if Women Can Work from Home," 15 December 2014). The stated motive behind this step is to retain female employees since work from home is considered as beneficial to employees, particularly, female employees. Such statements are part of a broader wide-spreading narrative that depicts work from home as a boon to employees. However, there is increasing evidence that work from home involves significant employee costs, depending on how it is framed and implemented. Hence, we argue that instead of excessively focusing on employee benefits, corporations and policy makers should consider employee cost also.

Indian Narrative

Working from home is not a recent phenomenon in Indian corporate sector. News reports claim that in International Business Machines (IBM) India and Hewlett-Packard (HP) India work from home is an integral part of the employees' work life. These companies portray work from home as a help that they extend to their employees in balancing work and life (Sabharwal, et al, 2011). Many other Information Technology (IT) companies make similar claims. For example, firms such as Avtar-I Win specifically aim to promote home-based working and other flexible work practices to help women join and sustain in the workplace (Avtar I-Win, n.d.). In this discourse, work from home is highlighted as a big opportunity for women to join and continue in work while balancing work and life (Ahuja, 2003; Mitter, 2000). This emphasis should be understood in the context of the high exit rate of Indian female employees due to marriage or child-care reasons. For example, 45% of Indian women considered the strong social norm that women must take care of the family as the main reason for women leaving the workplace (McKinsey, 2013). Hence, to the extent that the female workforce provides firms with labor supply, employers also benefit.

A few state governments also repeat the narrative of employee benefits. For example, the ICT policy of Andhra Pradesh 2010-2015 promotes work from home as an employee benefit. Thus, the policy lists several benefits of work from home such as: (1) gainful employment for women with young children and for physically handicapped people, (2) mitigation of risks to employees' personal security in night shifts and (3) work-life balance.

Overall, as the recent research suggests, the Indian narrative seems to focus excessively on employee benefits (Bathani & Kandathil, 2015). Given that this discussion on work from home is in the context of IT industries that is dominated by multinational companies, this local focus seems to be a reflection of the global discourse.

Global Narrative

Many multinational companies across the globe have repeatedly highlighted work from home as an employee benefit that they provide. Further, companies even portray work from home as a privilege given to employees (Mescher, et al, 2010), even at a cost to the employer. In this direction, Yahoos' recent ban on work from home is telling as it resulted in a debate in the media (Swisher, 2013b) and subsequent corporate actions.

While responding to Yahoo's action, the proponents of work from home were vociferous about its employee benefits (Swisher 2013b). However, indicating work from home as a costly business, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's Chief Executive Officer (CEO), defended the ban. She argued that people are more collaborative and innovative when working together in the office (Carlson 2013). While refuting Marissa's justification as...

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