Work-from-home culture likely to outlast COVID-19 lockdowns

The productivity and financial benefits of work-from-home are becoming apparent

work-from-home-offce-covid-19-coronavirys-shut Representational image | Shutterstock

With the Indian government relaxing terms and conditions to facilitate work from home (WFH) further, the COVID-19-induced trend is set to outlast the lockdown. It could well be one of the lasting takeaways from the global business lockdown.

“In response to the IT industry’s request to facilitate work-from-home for OSPs (other service providers), department of telecom had relaxed terms and conditions for (procedures and setting up of) virtual private networks (VPNs) till April 30. After discussions with IT ministers, this relaxation in terms and conditions is extended till July 31st,” announced IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday.

This came after his video conference with various state ministers, where he shared NASSCOM data which stated that 85 per cent of India’s IT-ITeS workforce while working from home was "doing a good job".

While WFH is across the board and will continue in some form or the other post-lockdown as well, it is the  IT and BPO industries that have been the big movers in the whole trend. Nasscom figures submitted to the minister say about 90 per cent of IT employees and 70-80 per cent of BPO and small-and-medium businesses in the sector are presently working from home. Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan even declared earlier this week that “We are not going back to business as usual," he said, adding that firms would do a rethink on the office space they would require and "how we need to deliver services in the future.”

Gopalakrishnan was probably inspired by Tata Consultancy Services’ CEO and managing director Rajesh Gopinathan, who not only moved 4.48 lakh of his staffers into what he called ‘Secure Borderless Workspaces’ model, his plan is to keep at least 75 per cent of his employees on remote working in the coming years. 

“This is our new operating model and represents the future of work. It helps our employees enjoy a better quality of life and it helps organisations become more resilient because the fully distributed nature of this model is inherently less risky and better suited for business continuity and agility,” Gopinathan said at the TCS earnings call last fortnight.

Beyond the IT sector, companies in other sectors, too, who have taken to WFH wholeheartedly. “What we are seeing is that businesses which were already almost completely online or have managed to pivot to online models in the last 60 days have benefited,” said Narayan Mahadevan, CEO of BridgetLabz, an HR platform. This has been especially true of sectors like Finance, Health, media and entertainment.

”Companies who have been able to identify their core proposition and take it online along with an ample dose of WFH for all its stakeholders will show resilience to the downturn,” Mahadevan predicts.

It seems pretty clear that WFH will be the ‘new normal’ as corporates call it. After one month of lockdown, managers and professionals seem to have eased into this way of working. Companies have also been prompted to pursue WFH further due to two practical realities. One is the fact that social distancing requirements would mean that offices can only be manned by up to 50 per cent or less of their workforce in the foreseeable future—meaning WFH would be the only way to keep all employees productive. Second has been a general impression that employee productivity has not gone down, as was feared by many managers and department, even as accountability and output have in fact gotten better.

Some firms are also realising that getting more WFH workers could be economical, too—not just saving on office space, but on salaries, too, as in most cases, getting gig workers would mean lesser overheads than permanent employees. Recruiters say job postings for WFH ‘gig’ work has gone up 30 per cent in March and April, ever since the COVID-19 scare struck.

“Having a flexible, distributed workforce is one of the leading trends in the future of work. Several companies have already been reducing their infrastructure and payroll costs by employing candidates who work-from-home or are freelancers,” pointed out Neha Bagheria, founder and CEO, JobsForHer, a recruitment platform.

The new trend could even see a re-configuring of workspaces. A study by Savills India, an international property consulting firm points out how office space leasing will slow down for rest of the calendar year as tenants reprogramme their office needs, with fresh office supply in temporary pause. 69 per cent of offices polled by Savills said the post-pandemic world would want ‘more digital and less physical workplaces. 

“Work from home and greater assimilation of technology would be important going forward,” explained Savills India CEO Anurag Mathur, adding, “Having said that, we do anticipate a significant rethinking in office layouts, space ratios, code of behaviour, break areas utilisation norms, building services planning, etc. Unlike the last decade when compact planning took currency, there could be requirements of larger office spaces for the same number of occupants.”