Work-from-home — India Inc’s ‘new normal’?

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As the need for physical distancing trumps all other concerns, the office space may be slowly but steadily losing its role as a crucible of productivity.

What does all work and no workplace make Jack?

Longer hours, higher workload, fewer breaks and phone calls past logout time — gone are the days when India Inc’s professionals thought of work-from-home (WFH) as an employee benefit. What had looked thrilling at first has now gotten tedious, for this is their ‘new normal’.

“There are actually no specific working hours, we end up just working the entire day. No routine, nothing!” says Aanchal Sharda (24), an associate at Mumbai-based consulting firm Think Analytics.

As COVID-19 began entering the public consciousness, many companies decided to let most of their employees work from home at least a week before the nationwide lockdown commenced on March 25. To stay ahead of the curve, some even conducted daylong trials and allowed a buffer of two to three days so that issues pertaining to availability of business-related data, connectivity, and infrastructure could be identified.

“When it comes to [accessing] data available on platforms such as Reuters and Bloomberg terminals, you have to be present in the office,” says Vinay Bafna (30), who works in ICICI’s equity research division. He added that while his workplace decided not to provide such access at home, he knew of other organisations that did.

Even technology-enabled sectors such as the IT-ITeS (information technology and IT-enabled services) struggled at first, according to a Bengaluru-based consultant at Wipro.

“There’s a saying that any company that provides IT services is bad at IT. Especially for those working with BFSI [banking, insurance, and financial services] clients, there were a lot of data security issues involved,” the consultant says.

Once these initial issues are resolved, it is business as usual. But with time, the line between personal and professional have begun to blur.

“There are no clear boundaries anymore. I get messages at eight in the morning though my work doesn’t start until 9.30. Now even people from other teams call me late at night. It used to be a one-off thing before but this is becoming the norm,” says Neha Abrol (29), who works as a product manager at one of India’s largest private sector banks.

She adds that while her organisation had marked one hour in the afternoon as a “no calls hour”, most did not follow it.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, managers had always viewed WFH with some degree of skepticism, for various reasons. However, the last two months have provided an acid test for the practice, and attitudes have changed.

Ruchi Negi (26), who works for a multinational investment bank in Bengaluru, says that while the firm has a WFH policy, the practice has never been encouraged.

“It was slightly looked-down-upon, so we took [the WFH option] only on days when we didn’t have too much work. I hope that won’t be the case anymore — productivity hasn’t gone down,” she adds.

In terms of workplace practices, Silicon Valley has again been the first-mover. While Facebook, Google, and Salesforce have extended WFH for their employees until the end of the year, Twitter has gone the extra mile and said its employees could opt for it permanently. Closer to home, IT major TCS has announced plans to ensure that 75% of its workforce will work from home by 2025.

According to noted management consultant Kavi Arasu, COVID-19 has caused significant disruption to the workplace. “First up, there will be a focus on hygiene. Organisations have already started putting rules and regulations in place for that. Secondly, we will see a lot of open-mindedness about working from home or remote locations. In the long run, there is going to be a combination of WFH and working at a place where people can physically come together,” he says.

Even then, these professionals hope a return to their workplaces will not be too long coming. Non-availability of domestic help to manage household chores has further aggravated the antipathy towards working from home. Most feel that WFH should be more of a flexible option going forward, as the atmosphere at work — conversations and coffee breaks with colleagues throughout the day — is an important factor for job satisfaction and productivity.

“If you love your work, you’d rather go to the office and look for the perfect setting,” says Prishta Grover (23), a Gurugram-based analyst at RBS. As things stand, the space for interaction has shrunk from the walls of office cubicles to one corner of a desktop screen.

Though lockdown rules are being relaxed in India, it could be months before the cubicles are reunited with their occupants. In most corporate offices, the workplace has been typified by the sight of employees clustered together. But the pandemic has prompted firms to think hard about adapting to the ‘new normal’.

An employee at a leading investment bank in Mumbai says: “Only employees in critical functions will work from the office. About 20-30% of the people on a particular floor will come to work for the next year.”

“We have shut down our in-house cafeteria and people are encouraged to bring home-cooked food. We also might limit the number of people to be physically present in meetings. Even for customer-facing roles, most interactions will be over video-calling,” says Elstan Antony, an HR representative at a leading life insurance company in Mumbai.

Another everyday reality for professionals across major Indian cities is commuting to work. While the Centre and State governments have discussed proposals to resume public transport with strict compliance with physical distancing norms, many feel that simply may not work given how densely populated these cities are.

At present, fear of the virus overpowers the longing for cubicles. Those who cover great distances to their workplaces in metropolitan cities wish to continue with WFH until the infection rate reduces.

But a return to the workplace of pre-COVID-19 days seems inconceivable. According to Arasu, this may herald a shift in how managers and organisations perceive work and gauge the performance of individuals: “The present model of work that sees physical presence in the workplace as an important condition and measure for performance and rewards has started evaporating. Work has to be reimagined so that it can be fitted into people’s homes. That would require imagination and effort.”

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