Lead Story

India Inc says the three words that changes everything. Hint: It is not what you think

Work from home — It’s not a favour for employees but an imperative for its survival

The glass façade of corporate complexes in Mumbai’s business hub, Bandra Kurla Complex bear a vacant look. Restaurants in the vicinity, perfect for those lunch-break getaways, have shut shop. The sun still shines and a mild breeze continues to make its presence felt. But the throngs of people and cars frequenting the business district have disappeared. As have the crowds in Phoenix Market City, a mall located close to BKC.


Elsewhere in India, the scene would not be any different. Because barring a few essential services, most of India is at home, working from home (WFH). For others — essential services as well as malls, restaurants and multiplexes — it won’t be an overstatement to say that the way of doing business has changed forever.


The abrupt switchover has been caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unplanned lockdown across the country, starting March 25. “This situation has caught everyone by surprise. Unless an organisation was already geared for working from home (like IT firms), it is not an easy situation to work under,” acknowledges Vinay Razdan, chief human resources officer at HDFC Bank. Be it technical support, ensuring data security or simply training employees to remain productive, a lot had to be done in limited time to ensure business continuity. At Malls like Delhi’s Select Citywalk, Deepak Zutshi, centre head, says that no one knows what the new normal would be. “It is not clear how consumer behaviour will change,” says Zutshi contemplatively.


That said, six weeks since the lockdown was enforced, a new normal seems to be emerging. Companies across retail, FMCG, media, IT or banking have come up with out-of-the-box solutions to manage this crisis. “COVID-19 has been a trigger for companies to take a close look at their WFH policies, tech investments and training investments. Digital transformation will get significantly more management attention in the months ahead,” says Manish Pajan, partner, Business Psychologists International.



Tech tales


In leapfrogging to a WFH regime, the IT industry is naturally an early adopter. There, WFH has existed as an option for a long time, but people did not sign up easily for that option. “With COVID-19, it became the only option,” says Balbir Bora, director, White Water Solutions. 


Take, for instance, Tata Communications Transformation Services. Like many IT companies, it operates what is known as offshore delivery centres (ODC). ODCs of different customers operate in an environment that is created by the customer with their email ID, their virtual private network (VPN), and so on. Aadesh Goyal, CHRO, Tata Communications, says that initially their ODC customers were quite resistant to switch to WFH. But when complete lockdown happened, they eased their policies. 


In fact, says Senthil Rajagopalan, president of Profit.co,which provides Objectives & Key Results (OKR)-based tools, IT firms have been moving to a cloud-based infrastructure for the past 10 years. Since everything rests on the cloud, both clients and service companies don’t have to worry about the physical infrastructure, and it makes transition to WFH fairly easy. Also, with the cloud, security becomes the responsibility of the cloud-services provider. “Liability for the vendor goes down significantly,” says Rajagopalan.



In addition, tech firms also have fluid policies that suit a WFH transition. “We are accustomed to a digital workspace,” says Ira Gupta, HR head, Microsoft India. Every meeting at the office is now done on Teams, often with video. To make these conversations engaging (like someone droning on about enterprise software) the company has allowed the use of GIFs, stickers and emojis. If anyone has missed a meeting, they can catch up through recordings. At software product firm SAP, the story is similar. Sindhu Gangadharan, senior vice president and managing director at SAP Labs India, says that their systems, tools and monitors are anyway designed for remote work. All they had to do was activate them and the change was no biggie.

Meanwhile, Tata Communications seems to have been a step ahead of others. Goyal says they had a feeling that the lockdown was coming, so they had their VPN capacity upgraded all over the world, to let many people work at the same time. Within two weeks of the announcement, the company went from 2% employees working from home to 98% on WFH. Of course, there are those, like people operating in network operations centre or security operation centres, who used desktops. For them, the IT team quickly created ‘lite solutions’ that could be used from home — either on a device provided by the company or on their personal devices.

On April 19, during its Q4FY20 earnings call, the chief operating officer of another Tata Group company made a bold claim. “We believe that 25% of employees in our offices [by 2025], spending only 25% of their time at location, can make 100% of the people productive,” N Ganapathy Subramaniam, of TCS, had said. Nearly 90% of the company’s workforce had been moved to WFH with their ‘Secure Borderless Work Spaces’ platform. “We are not going back to where we were,” he added, meaning COVID-19 has resulted in the setting of a ‘new normal’. Nasscom has announced that only about a tenth of India’s $191-billion IT and IT enabled services (ITeS) industry may end up working from offices in the months ahead. 


Switching gears


For non-IT businesses, the change hasn’t been easy. But some, in retail and finance, managed to pivot their business in record speed. For example, Devendra Chawla, CEO, Spencers Retail, says that as soon as the lockdown was announced, their online orders went up by as much as 7x. Until then, the supermarket chain was predominantly brick-and-mortar. “In two days flat, we entered into an agreement with Uber to cater to the increased demand for deliveries,” says Chawla. Consequently, from just 12 orders everyday per person, they could deliver 30-40 orders per person. Chawla also entered into similar agreements with Swiggy, Rapido and Zip, among others. Not just did this solve a problem for the retailer, but also provided meaningful employment for the drivers, most of whom were unemployed during this lockdown period. “We could either wait for lockdown to lift, or do things differently. We chose the latter,” says Chawla. 


Similarly, for HDFC Bank, WFH has limited appeal. A bank still needs to man the branches and the tellers need to be on the premises to get system access. To assume everyone can switch over smoothly in a totally different direction would be over simplifying, says Razdan. “We are paranoid about security and have to tread very carefully, even if it meant a drop in productivity,” he says. Therefore, they asked employees to upgrade their skills through training and certification. One of the bank’s bigger achievements in transition was announcing their Q4 results on time. “It involved a lot of people working collaboratively from different places. A year ago, if you asked them whether results can be announced virtually, they would have laughed at you,” quips Razdan.

The company is also using the lockdown to push its digital banking agenda. In metro cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, the bank has launched mobile ATM facility to help people withdraw cash without moving out of their locality. The mobile ATM covers three to five locations between 10 am and 5 pm each day. 

Zutshi says that life will not go back to normal as soon as the lockdown is lifted. Therefore, the finance, IT and administrative team at the mall are constantly working with brands to innovate on post-COVID-19 solutions. For instance, at restaurants, menu cards might become obsolete. Customers coming in can simply scan the QR code at the table to get the menu on their phones and will also be encouraged to pay digitally. Seating inside multiplexes, food courts too will be done keeping in mind social distancing and sanitisation. “Also, purchase of clothes, shoes and makeup is being worked out with brands, as trials won’t be possible before buying,” he says. Another major change is the policy of not encouraging window shoppers. People will have to come in, buy and leave, as it is important to avoid crowding. So, if you are looking forward to a leisurely stroll at the neighbourhood mall, cross that off the list. 


Traditional businesses can’t move as fast, so Microsoft is lending a helping hand. They made Microsoft Teams available free of cost in early March, including for organisations that don’t have Office 365. When clients of Microsoft reported challenges outside of their normal requests — such as using additional devices, adjusting security policies, enabling BYOD (bring your own device), supporting broader SaaS application usage and securing sensitive data — the software giant gave guidance on the additional tools available at their disposal. This includes connecting all applications and cloud resources to Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), which helps employees get secure access to tools and resources they need. It also protects these resources from unauthorised access. 

Data security is a cause for concern at many companies, particularly for those who deal with large volume of data. Not everyone has a technology giant like Microsoft for a friend, so they are using simpler techniques. For one, giving employees hardware with disabled-USB drives and not allowing them to install new software. That plus VPN provides a safe environment for data, believes Rajagopalan. There are many software companies and consulting firms that work from home, and they deal with a lot of data. “If they can do it, so can any other firm,” he says. 


Rajagopalan adds that today technology also enables electronic surveillance. For instance, companies can ask employees to keep their webcam on while working. If they are using a company notebook, then one can also monitor how much time a person spends on each application – such as email/chat/browsing – which their manager can review at the end of the day.




Cultural change


While ‘policing’ is possible, it isn’t advisable. Rajagopalan says that progressive companies empower employees to set their own "Objectives & Key Results" and align them with corporate goals. "They prefer to measure 'outcomes' than activity and encourage transparency," he adds. This means clear communication and expectation setting are critical for WFH. “It is a significant shift as expectation from an employee gets clarified right at the onset,” says Razdan. 


Companies must also understand, just because the person is at home, s/he isn’t available 24 hours. “If we are not disciplined enough to separate personal and professional lives, we will not be able to rejuvenate ourselves and a Monday morning might look  as weary as Thursday afternoon,” says Sourav Mukherji, professor - Organizational Behaviour & Human Resources Management, IIM Bangalore. With lack of support staff, it is also difficult to stick to a rigid 9-hour schedule. Therefore, a more flexible work routine is better. 

Companies have already begun factoring in this requirement. At BARC, the new work timing is 10 am to 5 pm, so that employees can devote time to home after that. “We are course correcting every week based on feedback received from employees,” adds Manashi Kumar, chief of strategy and people operations, BARC India. Similarly, at Godrej, Sumit Mitra, head of Group HR and Corporate Services, Godrej Industries and Associate Companies, has introduced the idea of flexible work timings. “I sent out a mail to managers asking them not to call their team between say 1 pm and 3 pm, or any other time, as per the team consensus,” he says. 


Companies are also taking an effort to support anxious employees or even those who simply miss the socialisation that was possible in office. If work can happen online, then so can the occasional chit-chat! “We have seen a number of our teams schedule no-agenda ‘tea breaks’ on a Teams video call. This helps virtualise the water cooler conversation that many miss these days,” says Gupta. Zumba, yoga and meditation sessions or virtual contests and celebrations are also being organised to keep the team spirit blazing. If WFH becomes a more accepted option, the talent available multiplies. “Greater flexibility opens up another pool of talent who were not able to otherwise work because of constraints of location/travelling,” says Amit Prakash, CHRO, Marico. 



Road ahead


With COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down, WFH might well be the new normal. Even post lockdown, workspaces are unlikely to be the same. Masks, social distancing and even redesigning of workspaces are on the cards. “Our offices will open in a phased manner and on roster-based attendance model considering multiple factors such as containment zone information, mode of transport, commute time of the member and social distancing norms,” says Prakash. Also, companies are not in a hurry to get the workforce into offices, because even one positive case would need the entire premises to be sealed. 

Besides this fear, there are benefits from WFH, especially with the savings on overhead costs such as rent, office infrastructure and electricity. “In the Indian context, real estate is one of the costliest components. If you deduct that and transportation, and have only safety and software costs, WFH purely is more advantageous,” says Rajagopalan. Bora estimates that as much as 50% of the costs could be cut down if companies shift to a WFH arrangement for roles that can be shifted. 

And companies do not seem averse to this shift, since productivity levels have been maintained. “WFH, which earlier seemed like a fad has now proven to be the most cost-effective way of working post lockdown. We will only have one-third of the team working from office post lockdown for essential functions,” says Kumar adding that they are relooking at cost heads and see potential savings through lower rentals.



Goyal says in the short term, they aren’t thinking of asking people to report to office. “When we sent out a notice to employees to WFH, it said until further notice. We have no plans to resume even partial work from office,” he reiterates, adding, “We are 100% sure that 98% people working from office is something we won’t go back to.”

Some, like Godrej’s Mitra, are not so sure. He says that while the lockdown opened up digital possibilities and made WFH a more flexible policy, “I don’t think any function will permanently move to work from home in the long term.” On one hand, decision making has become faster because on digital media, one tends to debate a little lesser. But that also means lesser ideation. So, several conditions must be taken into consideration before such a final decision is taken. “It will have to be context sensitive. One size cannot fit all,” states Mukherji.


For now, companies are busy formulating a more liberal WFH policy. Gangadharan of SAP says that the ultimate choice should lie with the employees. “Giving employees freedom is good for their morale, enhances productivity and increases loyalty,” she states. Some also suggest a hybrid model, where employees could come in to the office for a limited number of days. There would be no reserved work spaces or desks. When an employee comes in, s/he would have to pre-book a meeting room or desk for fixed hours, suggests Rajagopalan. 

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that this lockdown has changed the course of business for companies across the spectrum. Whether a company is switching to WFH or altering its business model, change is inevitable. Therefore, clear up a corner in your house, your office might just come home, for good.