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Work from home...Photo credit: pressfoto - www.freepik
 
 
Remote Working could be the new normal

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?