This article first appeared in Swarajya yesterday. Link here
By Anand Parthasarathy
November 27 2021: Over 20 months of a pandemic-induced remote work regime for millions of Indians, proved one thing: A lot, if not all, that one could do, within the wall of the workplace, could be done, with little loss of efficiency, from the comfort of one’s home.
A year into the Covid-lockdown, Work-From-Home (WFH) was shown to be doable for the vast majority of industries – with the exception of sectors which involved physical manufacturing or direct interaction with customers.
For the so-called “knowledge” and voice-message-based contact industries, it was a no brainer: a PC, laptop or smartphone; a reasonably fast Internet connection – and the software to join a voice or video conference via tools like Skype, Zoom, Webex or GoogleMeet was adequate to provide normal service from virtually anywhere.
Human Resource gurus were soon touting WFH as the “New Normal” and multiple industry surveys came to the same conclusion, many based on feedback from management decision makers at the largest employers. Smaller enterprises who operated from leased or shared workplaces, spoke of significant savings they made by way of saved rentals, energy and data bills and staff travel reimbursements.
And by and large, the rest of us hardly felt any difference: I call the 1-800 number customer service number to ask for some appliance repair service and the lady at the other end handles my request with her usual efficiency. Only the sound of a baby bawling in the background, reveals that the customer agent is not seated in a call centre, but working from her home. So what?
Staff recalls have started
In recent days, many of these same head honchos, particularly in the infotech sector, forgot their stirring words about new ways of work, mouthed at this or that webinar on “Overcoming the Covid Challenge”. They or their assistants are sending out bulk mailers to employees to return to work pronto – or at least by the new year. Some are insisting for starters, that their staff return to their city of work, if they are operating remotely from home towns, even ‘staycations’ – resorts that helpfully enable professionals to operate while on a beach or hill station holiday.
A recent study by NASSCOM suggests that 50 percent of the workforce in India in the IT sector, will be working from their offices for at least 3 days in a week in 2022.
TCS, the largest tech-sector employer with over half a million employees worldwide, is known to be among the very first to ask over 90 percent of the staff to be back in office by November 15. However, while mustering almost its full strength, it has shared with them its long term “Vision 25/25”: By 2025, just 25 percent of its employees will spend 25 percent of their time in the workplace.
Wipro, like many other infotech players, has had its leadership back in office for a few days a week, since September and says its fully vaccinated staff can return. It will reportedly ask other vaccinated employees to rejoin in the new year, though not all at one go
HCL which has seen over 90% of its staff and their families vaccinated, has also sent out calls for employees to return.
Infosys senior staff, like those at Wipro have been back at work for a day in the week. For the rest of its nearly 2.7 lakh employees, Infosys plans what is now emerging as a favoured via media: a hybrid model which combines onsite attendance with remote working.
Hybrid model emerges
Indeed, this seems poised to be the way of work in the future: combining physical presence in the office for a certain proportion of the staff for certain periods of time with the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere for those whose task does not entail interaction with customers or colleagues.
And different IT majors are addressing the hybrid model with their own variants: Sundar Pichai who heads Google’s parent entity, Alphabet Inc., informed employees in a mail in May this year that the company would adopt a formula whereby 60 percent would come to work for a few days in the week; 20 percent would work wholly from office premises and 20 percent would work full time from home.
The New York Times reported this week that the financial district, Wall Street, was “in a revolt” with workers “slow-walking their return to office.”
“Finance employees who couldn’t imagine working from home before the pandemic are now reluctant to return to the office. Their bosses can’t figure out how to bring them back”, wrote the Times. Suburban dwellers were chafing at the thought of resuming long commutes. And many younger employees, having tasted the option, preferred to work from home.
This is true in some measure in India too. During these last 20 months, many IT professionals working for India’s top IT service and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies, looked back with some repugnance to their former work pattern: long hours; a factory environment, with one having to log in and log out every time one left the work spot, no option to leave even if one had completed the day’s task…. And then they tasted the WFH model: not having to dress in formals (at least the portions not visible to the webcam) being able to work at their own pace and (except for conference calls) to their own schedule; avoiding those long and boring commutes in the office bus – it could be 3 hours a day in a place like Bengaluru or Hyderabad…. There was no way they were going back to this old lifestyle – sorry, workstyle. Most are making arrangements to return to the city of their work in coming weeks and will rejoin office early in January 2022. But employers who expect a sort of ‘break-ke-baad’ return to the old normal, do so at their peril.
All-time high attrition
Why? Because this is a time of historic and unprecedented attrition in the India tech sector. During 2021, IT majors have lost between 15 percent and 30 percent of their staff: ironically many used to figure every year, as toppers in those ‘Best place to work’ surveys. Covid changed all that.
The long periods of sequestration; the impact and stress on loved ones; the occasional family tragedy; the opportunity to revaluate priorities and life choices…. All these have taken many professionals out of their old comfort zones and led them to reassess their life and career goals. Suddenly, family – and quality time with family -- is a thing to cherish. Many corporates have been blind or at the least, very slow to understand these changes – and were losing staff by the dozen, even at Covid’s height. If what they require of staff now in any new work model, does not match employees’ heightened priorities, attrition will quickly morph into an irreversible haemorrhage of talent.
Multiple surveys and studies in recent months point to what is the employee’s favoured working model for the future:
A key insight from India in a survey by Avaya finds 70 percent of employees would embrace a hybrid model combining work from home with some work at office.
A study by Lenovo found 74% of Indians prefer working from home to any other model. The NASSCOM study suggests that younger employees below 25 years may be more willing to a return to the workplace.
According to LinkedIn’s “Future of Work" Study 2021, nearly 9 in 10 (86 percent) respondents think that hybrid work will positively impact their work-life balance, as this model would allow them to strike the right balance between their personal and professional lives.
A study by Ericsson suggests that tomorrow’s workplace would be what it calls, a ‘dematerialized office” -- not quite home, not fully an office -- where future business is largely conducted digitally and a new Internet will emerge by 2030, to make it happen: the Internet of the Senses where Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality helps people interact with the sense of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.
Visionary? Maybe. But as employees all over India trickle back to work in the weeks ahead, they will do so with a heightened awareness of what they seek from life and work -- and how and where they will deliver their service.
Employers who realise that the pandemic was a digital and human tipping point; who are sensitive to the expectations of their returning staff, honed by nearly two years of introspection – they alone, will be ones who hang on their employees and their business.
Work from home: we like it! (indiatechonline.com)
Microsoft may extend work from home beyond Covid times (indiatechonline.com)
India-based findings about Work From Home (indiatechonline.com)
Indian government eases Work-From-Home for BPO industry (indiatechonline.com)
Work from Hotel offer from IRCTC (indiatechonline.com)
Remote Working could be the new normal (indiatechonline.com)