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Feeling at home with a new work order

The pandemic has made work from home (WFH) a reality for sectors that do not necessarily need physical presence. HR executives may not have to pay too much attention to attrition or attracting talent from different geographies any longer.

Feeling at home with a new work order
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Leading the way is TCS, which has already spelt out its intent to move 75 per cent of its 4.5 lakh workforce into WFH mode by 2025. This decision by the IT bellwether may define the trends that will shape the IT and ITES industry, while others, too, are taking note to emulate the model in their work areas.

Sridhar Vembu of Zoho told DT Next “I believe this will be a catalyst for spreading high-value-addition jobs to rural areas. Small offices of 10-20 people, who can work on technology or design or architecture or law can be located in small towns. Attracting such jobs is good for rural areas and it is good for the high-income people to have a more fulfilling life that is not merely chasing the next big purchase and get off the status treadmill.” 

For most banking operations and technical activities like system support or application development, WFH is not a new concept. “Most have been actively practicing this under banners of ‘flexible’ or ‘new age’ working, subject to clearance of local compliance. The convenience of not having to tackle peak time traffic and advances in data privacy tools has helped the cause. However, making WFH a part of the regular discipline was not on the cards. With COVID-19, there was no choice and thus, you see the acceleration towards WFH as a standard practice. The pandemic has shown us a proof of concept; now it is here to stay,” said a senior executive of a banking MNC.

This view is validated by the research of Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, who believes remote work will become strategic. “I’ve been studying it for years now, but under very different conditions—not in a crisis like this. We have to recalibrate our minds in terms of why we’re doing remote work now… working remotely is very effective if you can also restructure the organisational processes for how communication happens, how socialisation happens, and how coordination happens,” he said.

Can Indian firms be upbeat about adopting the model?

In an email response to DT Next, Choudhury said “I feel Indian companies should look at WFH and Work from Anywhere (WFA) policies closely. It could help them save on real estate. WFH and WFA policies can also help Indian IT companies deal with uncertain immigration policies in the US.

“I empirically studied the US Patent Office implementing a WFA policy where patent examiners were allowed to live in any city or town of their choice and WFH, and found that adoption of that policy between 2012-2013 led to lower subsequent attrition.” 

Vembu agreed, “Attrition is likely go down. Technologies will create better ways to engage with co-workers and the stronger community of a village provides a sense of belonging. The technology to make this possible is available now and getting better rapidly, with the pandemic having forced a rethink of life priorities for most people. We are going to seize this moment in Zoho, to be more aggressive in our rural push. Right now, almost the entire company WFH (only our China team has returned to the office partially). Rural areas now have better roads (still work in progress) and of course 4G is a game changer.”

A top executive in-charge of security at a leading MNC said on condition of anonymity that WFH is a forced reality. “Companies have funded the infrastructure. Sharing a laptop by other resources is a thing of the past. WFH is a big boon, especially for women, considering the expectation of her need to don multiple roles as she juggles between calls, cooking, housekeeping and attending to children, in the absence of a support system,” the person told DT Next.

Favouring the WFH, Brinda Poornapragna, CEO, eVidyaloka, an NGO providing digital education, said board meets have become more frequent, almost once a week. “State governments like Karnataka are found to be more participatory and accommodative, as there is an urgency to come together to serve the needs of children. That is the reason behind being able to execute MoUs, even while maintaining the social distancing and masking guidelines.”

The lockdown has put governance in a watchful mode. unless all the players work in tandem, it is not possible to orchestrate workable outcomes. This is somewhat like how the states have to align with the Centre for effective implementation.

“About 30 of us connect virtually and a daily calendar meet establishes a rhythm of work. Be it the donor management team or the sponsors or the functionaries, these meetings make it possible to operate in a disciplined and structured manner. The documents uploaded on a single drive enables access for everyone and actions are carried in a systematic way. In my role, I also make it a point to provide summary of our activities so that the sponsor or donor organisations are updated,” she added.

Even marquee firms such as Citibank and JPMorgan have embraced the change. And, why not, as the operational cost in the form of real estate can yield a 30 per cent saving, while the WFH roll-out has resulted in 80 per cent productivity gains for enterprises. Companies that already had a WFH culture covering 40-50 per cent of its employees have now made it 90 per cent. From being skeptical, there is a perceptible change in the leadership mindset of big enterprises too.  

Cisco, for instance, offers free broadband to its staff. On top of this, inverters have been supplied to critical resources, numbering 1,800-odd staff, to deal with irregular power supply and unanticipated load-shedding.

Companies such as Wipro or Infosys, which have the practice of housing their new hires in hostels for a fortnight or so till they find their rental accommodation, are looking to expand the coverage of WFH model. “Why not make these hostels a permanent facility for the staff? Instead of paying rent, the hostel charges can be paid since such an eco-system typically comes with a single room and an attached bath,” reasoned the industry veteran.

According to brand expert Harish Bijoor, WFH is the new norm. “COVID-19 has pushed everyone indoors. Remote working and contactless work will define the future of many enterprises. While IT and ITES can adapt to it seamlessly, other industries will need a lot more effort. A lot can indeed happen over the “jhaadu, pocha and bartan” (brooming, mopping, cleaning vessels) routine we have been forced to adopt. The home is not only the place you unwind at. It’s the place you wind yourself up as well.”

Today, social distancing has come to stay and the brouhaha over H1B visas could well be settled with the adoption of WFH. Also, as the digital savvy millennials rely on an asset-light model and the future workforce is going to be based on gig economy, if it is best suited to WFA, why just home? “With resources working in rotation at office, companies need to spend lot less on physical infrastructure. Banks will change, akin to the way we changed our customer’s behaviour to make them bank from a phone instead of a physical building,” the executive cited earlier pointed out.

As long as the outcomes and deliverables are achieved, thereby reflecting the productivity graph of performers, the rules of working tend to be accommodative, with the once-envious WFH and WFA becoming a forced certainty caused by uncertain times.

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