All in a day’s remote work

Published October 5, 2020
This file photo shows a woman working online in her cubicle at an office in Beijing. — AFP
This file photo shows a woman working online in her cubicle at an office in Beijing. — AFP

Disrupting the future of work was something we expected the robots to do and, to an extent, they did as well.

But then Covid-19 entered the party in style, sweeping everyone off their feet and becoming the talk of the town. Sure, the shift didn’t come through humans getting replaced by machines, as the essays often warned us, but through remote work creeping into the mainstream corporate culture. The shift came nonetheless, causing disruption in the truest sense of the word.

Soon after, most professional organisations switched to working from home, even trying to use it as an easy marketing strategy about how much they care about their employees. Meanwhile, the tech evangelists saw this change as an opportunity to point out that the future belongs to their industry.

But for the most part, initially none of us really thought (or at least hoped) that the outbreak would get this bad and we’d be restricted to the four walls for this long. Eventually, we ran out of patience, so the handshakes became more frequent and the face masks less.

With that came the question: what’s the future of work now? Opinions of executives across the biggest corporate names show a wide range, with Netflix’s Reed Hastings calling remote work “a pure negative” while the likes of Zapier and GitHub were on the other end of the spectrum even long before it was cool. That debate, like most others, didn’t really develop the same way in Pakistan. Or if it did, no one beyond the 30 self-styled “thought leaders” on LinkedIn knew about it.

With the blurring of the line between home and office, many employees have complained about increased workload and how they have to complete tasks during off hours

Though not really a Pakistani company, Careem again took the lead in branding itself as a remote-first company last week, joining a cadre of other big names in the tech sector. In their case, this means employees “are now able to work from anywhere they like in the country in which they were hired, and from anywhere in the world for up to 60 days each year.”

“The company’s physical offices will remain open and are being redesigned into spaces that facilitate collaboration and team building while also providing flexible workspaces for individual colleagues,” the press release noted.

Reading this, some founders must have gotten a smirk on their faces as to how they were much ahead of their times. For instance, take Integry, a plug-and-play native app integration software, which has been operating as a “distributed company” since inception three years ago.

But how well can telecommuting work in a country with a terrible connectivity and unpredictable power supply? Add to that the space constraints at any average urban family’s house. The proliferation of co-working stations could be the answer to that. So has been the philosophy of Integry’s founder, Muhammad Nasrullah. “The offer we give our employees is: you can work from home or we’ll pay for a coworking space.”

Let’s even forget space and other structural issues for now. None of us are oblivious to how exploitative the employers can get. With the blurring of lines between home and office, many employees have commented on the increased workload and how they have to complete tasks during off hours.

An employee at a well-reputed tech company told Dawn about how their social life has been ruined and (unofficial) office timing gone up to 12 hours a day. “Even after meeting targets, senior managers aren’t satisfied. I am looking to switch just because I can’t manage working from home,” they said.

The flexibility that the remote option brings can often lead to employees over-working, but Mr Nasrullah feels they have figured out the way to avoid that. “It requires personal discipline. If you’re not careful, you might end up working through all hours. We can encourage employees to set their ‘personal business hours’ to help them time-fence their work and for their own sanity,” he explains his company’s ‘output-focused’ approach.

And how is that executed? “We run the company in sprints, each being two weeks long. At the start of each sprint, everyone is given their task list, which is estimated by a cross-team panel, and you’re required to close the items within two weeks,” the founder elaborates.

“You can close your items in two days and take the rest of 12 days off, we’d be super-happy. The reverse is also true: you might take 100+ hours in the sprint to get work done. We don’t care about how much time you’re spending, but the output. If you miss the goals, we then look at your logged time as a ‘debugging’ tool,” he adds.

Another tech company, Jumpshare — which provides collaboration tools — went remote to validate and improve its own product. “We were working from our office for five years, but couldn’t find the market properly and were struggling to grow. I realised that we weren’t using our product even though it helps users communicate visually — the reason being our small team sitting next to each other and could simply look at other colleagues’ computers,” founder Ghaus Iftikhar explains his reasons.

“Since we were not using it daily, we couldn’t improve it as much. Many customers simply went with other choices. The second reason is that commuting was taking away two to three hours of productivity out of my life every day,” he continues. After going remote three years ago, the company tripled its growth rate.

But let’s be real now: working from home means something entirely different when you have 10-20 employees versus managing a team of 100 or more. Are there any inefficiencies that inevitably come up with such a scale?

For Careem, which employs 1,314 people including 300 in Pakistan, the answer is a resounding no. “When the pandemic hit and our movements were restricted, we were able to seamlessly adapt while continuing to support our customers and partners. As the work from home continued, our colleagues started reporting higher productivity and found they valued the flexibility. That’s when we went to the drawing board to challenge our set of beliefs on work and productivity,” said CEO Mudassir Sheikha.

Obviously, this entire debate is relevant to only a tiny fraction of Pakistanis, as a recent study showed that only 13.47 per cent of the jobs in the country are telecommutable. What share of even that percentage is achievable is perhaps the more important bit.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 5th, 2020


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