Corporate circles and thought leaders across the country have only one thing to say about the current economic crisis: it’s time to go hybrid.
The post-pandemic recession has hit, prices are spiralling through the roof, the energy crisis is worsening by the day, and the water bulb is heating up faster than we ever expected. So, cutting costs, sustaining earnings if not profits, and creating a delusion of living greener is something we should be doing. From distributed-teams to across-the-board-alternate-attendance, multiple models are being pitched. The buzz is getting louder.
Outside the glass walls, however, exist some ground realities. A representative sample of the Pakistani workforce reveals that only 10 per cent of the country’s economy is switchable to off-site or hybrid work mode. (Fun fact: this number is much smaller than the overall services sector share in the economy. Also, it is inclusive of the education sector which we should exclude from any discussion on the hybrid mode, at least for now.)
For the question of reducing costs and carbon footprint, coupled with arguments in favour of higher productivity and other fancy indicators, every switchable job counts. Still, going hybrid is only a workable, not a readily adoptable, solution for Pakistan’s long-term economic and climate challenges.
A hybrid economy requires much more than a favourable share of switchable jobs. It requires infrastructure – economic, technological, and social.
April 2020 was the first time in our adult life that the 90s kids saw a clear blue Lahore sky. It was also the first time our fuel expenses took a nose-dive to almost zero and road rage didn’t spoil our days. We were quick to adapt to new software and alternate work modes. But we worked longer hours and served as informal tech support to others.
When Lahore began to bake in the summer heat, the number of electricity units on our bills increased. We subscribed to bigger and more expensive 4G packages because broadband did not have the bandwidth. Hotspots wouldn’t support screen sharing on Zoom calls, so we started paying for stand-alone 4G devices too. Cookie jars emptied faster than HR emails flooded our inboxes with no-annual-increment, no-Eid-bonus, and pay-cut notices because the economy had slowed down.
Two years on, the country’s rather young workforce is still as unsheltered. The food basket is much costlier than it was, real income is declining every week, outages are worse, and the internet is still unreliable. When the recession hits, the commodities super-cycle goes into Super Mario mode, and a liquidity crisis looms, while firms are highly unlikely to pass on any gains.
If we are to go into hybrid work modes over the long term, firms would have to do more than integrating technology strategies with business strategies that itself requires investments. Firms need to rethink workspace capacity and design if they are to cut costs effectively. Considering the workers’ pockets, any reduction in fuel consumption will be offset by an increase in electricity usage required to work from home, light up and air condition a room, power a laptop and the internet, etc. Unlike remote work, hybrid mode doesn’t allow people to relocate. That means reducing the cost of living by simply moving to a second-tier city etc is not an option for many.
The pandemic forced us to go remote or hybrid without much experience and with almost no options. Social infrastructure didn’t factor in the work-life equation. One common theme across social and economic research on Covid-19 is a warning against using evidence from pandemic practices to draw inferences for the ‘new’ normal. The warning must be heeded especially in Pakistan’s case. The reason is that economic restrictions here began to ease within two months. Most firms went from remote to fully on-site by August 2020 with less than four weeks of hybrid work. The experience is negligible. Therefore, most stakeholders are unable to gauge the extent to which social infrastructure matters for alternate work modes.
Work modes have shaped social structures and have been defined by the same over centuries. Hybrid was the primary model of work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the cottage industry dominated. When the eight-hour workday became the order of business, workspaces got physically detached from the private spaces. The norms of managing houses and housework changed too.
At present, the discussion on the future of work and alternate modes is primarily driven by research conducted in the Western context. There is evidence to highlight the challenges of social infrastructure faced by professionals with school-going kids in Western countries. A closer look at the social profile of the workforce engaged in Pakistan’s switchable economy indicates the problem is much worse here.
A vast majority of the young workforce does not have access to quieter, well-organized, and equipped spaces in their houses. The average household size in this country is not two and it has the younger lot living on the margins. Unreliable internet services are, therefore, not the only problem. Setting up workstations at home that can make the existing social structure workable in the long run is costly. Moreover, unlike the Netherlands, no legislation guarantees compensations to workers who choose to make investments in home offices etc.
In sum, going hybrid is a viable solution to many of our long-term problems, particularly when the economy is unstable and slipping into a recession. However, long-term transitions should not be forced like temporary shifts in the face of a pandemic. Most of our switchable economy is quite vulnerable. We need a broader vision and a more rational approach to this transition. Rethinking business strategies when going hybrid needs to have a human and social lens too.