Work-from-home is good, however the place of business needs you again

As we begin preparing to take advantage of the relaxation in lockdown to resume work, revive our businesses, or resurrect our social lives, companies and employees are trying to visualise the future of the workplace.

The ongoing lockdowns to flatten the COVID-19 curve, changed the way people work, especially those in the organised sector. A majority of employees in the organised sector continued to work during the lockdown, but from home (WFH). While the IT sector is familiar with the concept, this is a first for employees in other sectors. Working from home is attractive to professionals, as they save time and money on the daily commute, eat home-cooked meals and stay close to their loved ones, but it has not really taken off in a big way in India.

Typically, when IT employees work from home, a significant number continue to operate from the office. Employees of a few companies did work entirely from home, but the number was not significant compared to the size of the organised sector. The lockdown changed all of this.

This has given companies an opportunity to evaluate the pros and cons of this concept from a relatively long-term perspective and sparked off speculation that the workplace is likely to change. The Hindu set out to understand what employers and employees learnt about their work and about working from home during the lockdowns.

Tech at the centre

Pratik Kumar*, a veteran of the software sector, believes companies heavily leveraging the cost advantage will definitely look at the option of allowing more people to work from home to save on real estate expenses. However, he warns that while this concept sounds good in conversations, the reality is something else. For one, India lacks reliable power supply, which is not conducive for companies working on mission-critical projects. Second, data leaks are a distinct possibility, and hence, a deterrent to allowing employees to work from home. Data security and client privacy issues are deal-breakers for companies in the banking, financial services and insurance (BFSI) sector. The lockdown posed a huge challenge for companies operating in or catering to this sector.

Danske IT, a subsidiary of Denmark-headquartered Danske Bank, is among the companies that claim to have passed this test with flying colours. Their 1,400-strong team, comprising technologists and people in support functions, began working from home. Deval Shah, managing director (India), Danske IT, says, “A crisis is a real test for how quickly companies can adapt to evolving situations. Even as we managed to make sure operations continued smoothly, the lockdown gave us an opportunity to relook the work-from-home option. We observed that productivity was not affected. Work-life balance improved for some colleagues, and the company contributed to reducing traffic congestion. We also successfully on-boarded new recruits.”

Senior HR professional Paul Simon* says, “Most tasks can be accomplished virtually using technology: hiring, on-boarding, training, etcetera.”

While one would expect that such success stories and positive feedback would prompt more companies to consider offering the work-from-home option to employees, many are, on the contrary, wary of the concept. Kaushik Dasgupta, from Accenture India, explains, “WFH has always been a taboo in India. It is believed that employees working from home are not as committed to the organisation as the ones who are working in an office. As a result, WFH policies in most companies are often rigid. Often, you are allowed to work from home only if you have an urgent need to be at home at that time.”

It is possible that this wariness has some justification. One company, which carried out a study, noticed that new recruits fresh out of college were not as productive as expected when they worked from home. Being fresh out of college, they had too many distractions.

Work-from-home is nice, but the office wants you back

Another concern is of employees taking up a second job or freelance assignments, which could bring down their productivity. Paul* says, “There is a feeling of isolation in teams where close collaboration is required. Office culture, the energy and the vibe when coming together in the office space, is missing. Plus, there is a possibility of meeting fatigue over video calls when compared to meeting in person, especially with larger teams.”

Big picture: a company thrives on a shared goal, ideals and work culture. These are highly motivating factors for an employee. Large companies invest a lot of time and effort in creating a work culture that brings out the best in employees. This cannot be created, or sustained, when employees work from home.

Successful companies can go to great lengths to perpetuate their work culture. One global software giant with operations in India is known for offering a fun and progressive workplace that is considered a benchmark in the IT sector. The company engages many vendors in India. To make sure that vendors do not compromise on the quality of the work place in their quest to squeeze the maximum revenue out of each contract, the company insists on one condition: all employees of the vendor working on the company’s projects must be based in its campuses for the duration of the projects.

The right space

Rutwik Datta*, a manager in a US-based insurance company, which has teams in various parts of India, shares, “Metrics show that people are more productive at home. At the same time, there are question marks over compliance requirements and privacy issues when it comes to employees working from shared apartments.” He sees an opportunity to reduce a company’s carbon footprint and possibilities of savings in real estate, which can be better used for employee engagement.

Work-from-home is nice, but the office wants you back

He suggests why Indian youth may prefer to work from offices: “Young people in India, especially those outside metropolitan cities, want to work in offices. Possibly because they are not comfortable working with the family looking over their shoulder, they like the atmosphere in an office, the facilities and team activities are a novelty for them and they have AC all the time,” he says.

New demands of employees

During the lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some people began taking a lot of precautions to prevent infection or cross-contamination. These are unlikely to be entirely abandoned even after the lockdown is lifted because, every day, we hear stories of people getting infected by the carelessness of others.

The senior manager in the real estate firm expects employees to be more demanding when it comes to facilities at the work place. Going forward, he says, it is possible that COVID-19, pandemic may prompt employees to insist on social distancing at work. They may demand hospital-grade filters in ACs. Some may even insist on a permanent seat, i.e. they won’t allow anyone else to use their seat, even temporarily.

Overall, people may want to work from home, but companies are unlikely to be receptive to the idea in view of their desire to perpetuate a common work culture, and their worries about privacy issues and data security.

So post-lockdown, one can expect some major overhauls, such as the framework of office spaces’ design may evolve to suit physical distancing and easy disinfection routines, or even a change in the number of people on-site versus WFH. The IT industry paved the way for this shift, and it is best we remain vigilant of the nuances to keep the COVID-19 curve flat.

*Names changed to protect identity

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