Work from Home & Remote Work--Panacea to All Ills of Unionization?

AuthorSarkar, Santanu

Remote Work as The Future of Work

Ever since the COVID-19 crisis struck hard, social distancing and stay at home policies as a part of the nationwide lockdown declared by the government in the first year of the pandemic have had an adverse employment impact in India. As organizations realized that the impact arising from the pandemic could be muted if workers perform their jobs at home, as an alternative to dragging out with their trials of paying part of wages, forcing workers to go on leave-without-pay, maintaining thin work-strength to continue limited production of goods and delivery of services or retrenching workers in the first six to eight months, majority employers decided to send workers to home offices. These organizations adopted remote work, also known as 'work-from-home', presumably an ad hoc, interim and contingent alternative. As Miyumara (2021) cited, half of those employed in the US and UK worked from home in April and May 2020 (Brynjolfsson et al., 2020), and this inspired organizations to promote regimes to manage a remote and flexible "future of work" (Naude, 2020). By 'future of work' in the Indian context, to an extent, we are trying to relate to the transition in work organization that began in the early 90s (Sarkar & Chakraborty, 2021). Work from home ceteris paribus embodied in the new normal for the urban workforce in India during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for those whose jobs are steered by digital technology, an advancement, that had been supported by several structural changes in the composition of labor and workers' organizing experience (Sarkar, 2008; 2014).

As the popular press reported, 66-88 per cent of this workforce in India prefered, wanted and favored work from home. The global research reports by McKinsey Global Institute, Lenovo, and SAP Concur (an expense management firm) validated the growing sentiments favoring remote work empirically. Market forces detected the potential for remote work and its determinants. Scientific management confirmed that organizations would see a jump in productivity, and workers will favor remote work because homework will liberate them. Additionally, organised capital attached a feminist hue to remote work, heralding its benefit to women's employment (Dangler, 1994) and gender-based pay gap on account of work flexibility. However, the gender-based pay gap has not evolved in India as a consequence of major policy reforms that normally has been noticed in other growing Asian economies as a result of which participation of women in the labor market has changed resulting in an increase or decrease of skilled jobs and investment from foreign nations (Lai & Sarkar, 2017; 2016; 2013).

Through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, not many organizations wanted granularly defining activities and occupations that can be done from home to better understand the future staying power of remote work in India. However, remote work raised a vast array of issues and challenges by the end of 2020 for workers globally. Only a specific section could reap the benefits of working remotely. Mostly highly educated, high-income, and white workers in the US worked from home during the 2020 pandemic (Bick, Blandin, and Mertens, 2020). They maintained employment following the pandemic suggesting that demand conditions mattered for job losses. Therefore, Saltiel (2020) was sceptical of the feasibility of working from home, citing workers' educational background and the nature of the occupation. Saltiel reported that only 13 per cent of workers in developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic have worked from home. Brussevich, Dabla-Norris, and Khalid (2020) estimated that approximately 15 per cent of workers, mostly from low-income groups in the informal sector in developing countries, were engaged in jobs that cannot be carried out by remote working. In most Western studies, it has been found that high-school dropouts, in the age group of 40 years and more, males from the bottom asset quintile in informal sectors are those who could not work from home. Mongey and Weinberg (2020) have shown that workers with less than a college degree are 33 per cent more likely to work in a low work from home occupation vis-a-vis their more educated peers. Workers' educational attainment, household capital to support insurance (asset index), gender, age, and occupation, are the dominant predictors. Dingel and Neiman (2020) and Mongey and Weinberg (2020) assessed the extent of low remote work careers, along with worker characteristics associated with jobs taken to the home. Mas and Pallais (2017) studied the prevalence of flexible work arrangements. According to them, the feasibility of working from home depends on the job and workers. As per Venkatesh and Bitalari (1992), work self-determination variables like flexibility and control, portability of work tasks and household income positively influence the amount of time spent working at home.

Notwithstanding the concerns scholars conveyed about the practicality of remote work, work from home lived through lockdown in India.

Notwithstanding the concerns scholars conveyed about the practicality of remote work, work from home lived through lockdown in India. When organizations send off workers to the home office, and physical meetings no longer remained a possibility, even the simplest form of coordination at work took slews of telephonic and email communication. A whole day of the Zoom meeting had grown into a new normal for thousands of workers. Still, a significant portion of them, young and educated, have found them more productive while working at home during the pandemic, although no reference to the quality of work was made in any significant studies. And others, especially those with children at home, have not realised a productivity difference yet preferred remote work since they liked the flexibility and how homework has liberated them.

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