"Change is the only constant," might be the most popularly used statement in the post-COVID world. Earlier this month, announcing the arrival of a paradigm shift in work culture, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote to his employees that whoever wishes to work remotely could continue to do so indefinitely. Less than 10 days later, more companies in the technology world, including Facebook and e-commerce website Shopify, are joining the bandwagon.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said, "I think that it’s possible that over the next five to 10 years — maybe closer to 10 than five, but somewhere in that range — I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently.” Facebook has about 48,000 employees worldwide.
"COVID is challenging us all to work together in new ways. We choose to jump in the driver's seat, instead of being passengers to the changes ahead," Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke wrote on Twitter announcing his company's decision to embrace remote working.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's statement at the company's recent Build developer conference signaled a similar change. "Every organisation will increasingly need the ability at a moment's notice to remote everything from manufacturing to sales, to customer support," Nadella said. For now, Microsoft employees can work from home until October.
An increasing number of companies believe that working from home is for the long haul. The trend has begun to churn Indian companies, too, especially in the IT and startup sector.
Why continue work from home?
Simply because it is more practical in the post-COVID world of increased social distancing that warrants for lesser workforce density in offices. And why not when the technology advancements allow them to do so, feel the companies. "We don’t believe that we need more than 25 per cent of our workforce at our facilities in order to be 100 per cent productive," said Rajesh Gopitnathan, CEO of TCS, one of the first companies in India to announce remote working as a long-term policy.
Another factor in favour is that it creates room for effective cost cutting. Gone will be the days of swanky offices and westernised open office floors. Indian IT companies and startups are already mulling about the possibility of cutting rental expenses. “Identify and significantly reduce every single indirect cost like hubs, office infrastructure, etc… It is one of the areas where we feel the cut is most prudent given it doesn’t affect customer or employee experience,” food delivery startup Swiggy's CEO Sriharsha Majety wrote in a recent mail to his employees announcing layoffs at the company.
Rival Zomato's CEO Deepinder Goyal recently noted that other than payroll, the company’s biggest recurring expense was real estate. He said the company has decided to make partial or full work from home a “permanent feature”. “The management has realised that work from home is an easily workable solution and thus office spaces is one area where costs could be cut. So a number of office spaces will no longer be retained,” a company executive told The Indian Express.
A conducive work from home policy by companies would also be avenues for remote hiring. "It just kind of makes sense because, right now, everyone is pretty much working remotely, but we’re still just constraining our hiring to people who live around an office which isn’t open. So we’re going to start remote hiring," says Zuckerberg in an interview to The Verge. In effect, companies can widen its access to talent pools.
Change of laws
However, a permanent shift to a work-from-home policy would call for changes to the labour and taxation laws. The IT industry in India estimates that close to 50 per cent of the country’s 4.3 million IT workers will soon work from home, and were asked to detail the legislative changes required to facilitate this significant transition.
As reported by The Economic Times, the industry has also requested the government to make permanent several recent concessions extended until July, including relaxation of telecom regulations that allow back-office companies to work from home and move equipment out from designated special economic zones to facilitate remote working.
Officials are of the view that labour laws should be amended in a way to safeguard employees while also providing flexibility to employers.
It could also be a win-win deal for the employee and the employer. “As working from home catches up, people could work for two or even three companies at the same time. So, the government will need to let employers and workers choose NPS (National Pension Scheme) instead of EPFO as a social security scheme, as in NPS a worker can be an employee today and a gig worker tomorrow,” Ashish Aggarwal, senior director and head of public policy at Nasscom, was quoted in the ET report.
Government offices, too
With the prolonged pandemic situation, which is expected to throttle economic activities for a few months, the remote working style is being adopted at a faster pace than thought. Winds of change are being felt in the government departments too with various ministries pitching fresh work-from-home framework to its employees.
Among the prominent changes being proposed are three days of work from the office and two days from home, reduced childcare leave and Make in India laptops for staff, reported The Hindustan Times. Citing various officials, the report added that various logistics have to be worked out, including creating a support inventory such as cloud space for files and determining the level to which the virtual private network will be extended.
The underlying message is clear--governments at both the Centre and states hint that the restrictions have been eased for businesses and services that absolutely require physical presence of employees, like manufacturing units, medical, and law and order segments.
However, one of the critical issues to be addressed by companies shifting to a work-from-home policy is cyber security. As per various cyber security researches, the cyber security attacks had increased multifold in post-COVID India.
“We have recommended that office laptops be used as they are encrypted,” an official from the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances told HT.
However, not everyone is convinced about the practicality of a remote working style in the longer run. "Early on, I’m excited that some of this is working well. But it is based on a foundation of all of us knowing each other and having the regular interactions we already had. I’m curious to see what happens as we get into that three-to-six-month window and we get into things where we are doing something for the first time. How productive will we be when different teams who don’t normally work together have to come together for brainstorming, the creative process? We are going to have research, surveys, learn from data, learn what works," Google CEO Sundar Pichai was quoted in a recent interview by Wired.