The coronavirus pandemic forced governments and corporates worldwide, to switch to a new paradigm: Work From Home. Could this be a viable option, even after the crisis passes?
By Anand Parthasarathy
( This article appears as the cover story in the April 2020 issue of Science Reporter, a publication of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research ( CSIR)
April 4 2020: The more things change, the more they remain the same, runs a French proverb. Here is a striking illustration: Some five years ago, this correspondent, had an interview fixed with an IBM executive in one the several offices of that company in Bangalore. On the appointed day I made my way to the office and was met in the lobby by one of IBM's corporate communications officers. " We need to go to meeting room no 2. Let me try and find it", she said. I was a bit surprised. Surely someone who worked there would know the geography of the place? Turned out she didn't work there -- or in any of IBM's half a dozen locations in the city.
Like thousands of IBM staff, she 'worked from home' and came to office on rare occasions like this when she had to organise a media meeting. If for some reason she needed to work from office, she had to "book" a workstation in advance. She showed me a large hall with dozens of such cubicles , with a floating population of IBMites. After my interview was over, I went back to my home -- and the lady did likewise, to hers.
More recently, I heard from a manager at the multinational tech company, Cisco, that some 60 percent of their staff particularly in Indian metros, had the option of working either from home or from one of those serviced 'workspaces" available for rent near their homes. Cisco saw no sense in thousands of staff spending three hours or more of productive time, commuting to the city's IT clusters.
'Work From Home" is therefore not a new concept. It has been around for over a decade (see box: Flashback: the first home worker). The concept has been called many things including Telecommuting and Remote Working. But the coronavirus pandemic suddenly made this a compulsion rather than an option. The Indian government mandated that corporates allow as many as possible of their employees to operate from home -- and set an example within its own walls.
When an Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit was convened on March 26 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, joined the other leaders from his official home, via video conference. Since then multiple conferences with senior bureaucrats and state government heads have been conducted with each participant in his or her own home. The central ministries too were able to send almost all their staff home -- and still work, thanks to an electronic file movement system called e-Office that has been refined since 2014. with e-files colour coded for priority, the virtual office handles all inter-ministerial traffic, tracks the time taken by each official and highlights inordinate delays . e-Office had already created over 12 million e-files by 2020, so the transition to remote decision making in recent weeks has been smooth.
Prepared or not, remote working became the only viable option across vast sections of Indian enterprise and government, making Work From Home, an idea whose time has come.
Many state governments set a target of 50 percent staff working from home, at all large enterprises. With infotech companies, the number was almost 100 percent with daily teleconferences ensuring smooth client support and contract fulfillment. For some the transition was easier: Said Peter Quinlan, Vice President of Unifed Communication and Collaboration at Tata Communications: " For some time now we’ve had in place flexible working policies - like work from home, flexible working hours, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and virtual collaboration environments .Our teams are quite comfortable leveraging chat, voice, video and collaboration tools to get their jobs done. Companies that find this a new experience need not despair, as today’s technologies can be readily deployed from the cloud and introduced to users with really minimal training."
India's biggest Information Technology company TCS, shipped 6000 laptops a day for many days to ensure that 85 % of its 4.5 lakh employees could work from home. Players in the call centre or customer contact centre business -- known as Business Process Outsourcing -- faced a bigger challenge since they had obligations to global clients. The Department of Telecommunications relaxed norms for such IT-enabled services to shift their operations out of licensed premises. But challenges remained: how to divert incoming calls to agents working from their homes using what is known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP; how to let agents attend to calls from the browsers of their laptops; how to ensure that they had access to the company's data base, which resided on servers back at their headquarters. Smaller BPO players received a helping hand and free resources from cloud-based collaboration specialists like Avaya, Cisco, Ozonetel and others to help make a smooth transition. They were helped by one pre-existing condition: international quality optical fibre based data connectivity to the home in all major cities, at gigabit speeds ( 1000 megabits per second), offered by all leading telecom players: BSNL, Reliance, Airtel, Idea-Vodafone and others.
Work From Home: the essentials
But the majority of professionals suddenly restricted to their homes, managed with whatever home WiFi network they already enjoyed. Thankfully lakhs of homes today have a data modem and a router which was used to create a WiFi home hotspot. A data speed of around 25 mbps is adequate to maintain a working link to office. Those who had installed the new generation gigabit routers with MUMIMO ( Multi User Multiple In Multiple Out) technology, can insulate their office stream from other home applications like a TV or a smart speaker and ensure more bandwidth for the office app.
If they have access to a 2020 model like the made-in-India D-Link Exo AC1300 smart mesh router, they have the added advantage of being able to mix-n-match additional mesh units, dedicating one mesh to the office work.
Netgear is the first in India to launch routers to the new, faster WiFi6 standard.
One inherent danger in doing critical work at home is security. Home networks rarely offer the level of data protection that enterprise installations mandate. But thanks to the constant 'trickle down' effect of technology, it is possible today to install a Virtual Private Network or VPN on any home computing device: desktop PC, laptop or even a smartphone at little or no cost, ensuring a secure connection to the office.
It is also sensible to invest in an external portable hard drive and keep a backup of everything you do on an office device. Any device can cease working necessitating a reboot -- and loss of all saved information. Today a 4 terabyte ( 4000 GB) external hard disk can be had for around Rs 10,000 from WD or Seagate in India.
IEEE advises home office workers to follow some rules: ensure both WiFi and router are password protected; use only devices provided by your employer to do office work; ensure you are running the latest versions of your key software tools. The coronavirus crisis, saw dozens of new malicious softwares emerging from under the rock to exploit the huge jump in traffic -- and almost all of them were neutralized by new patches or releases of popular software tools.|
Finally it is almost impossible to work from home without a secure and reliable video conference link to co-workers and supervisors. A few weeks ago, Cisco offered free and unlimited usage of its market-leading conference tool ‘Webex Meetings’ to help users stay connected and to support work from home. Other home workers routinely use free tools like Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts or FreeConference, though they have some limitations on the size and length of meetings.
As India Inc, increasingly embraces facets of remote working and virtual offices, Anand Mahindra, Chairman of Mahindra Group predicts: "I think the crisis is making the world press a permanent ‘Reset’ button. It’ll accelerate working from home, lead to more digital ‘virtual’ conferences , encourage more video calls, less meetings and less air travel, leading to a greener footprint. Anything else?"
Who can foretell? One thing is clear in the coronavirus-fuelled change in how we work: the benefits of encouraging a proportion of any company's workforce to work from home are already manifest. Studies show that businesses cut real estate costs by 20 percent and payroll by 10 percent, besides avoiding expenses like travel allowance. So will this be the new option, if not the new normal?