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The difficulty of returning to the office: Indian companies stick with work-from-home

Employers were keen to get workers back in office. Then Omicron struck.

work-from-home-wfh-bhanu Vijay Kulkarni with his family as he works from home | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Bengaluru-based techie Vijay Kulkarni, 35, has been working from home (WFH) for a well-known multinational company since March 2020. In March 2021, Kulkarni’s company called most of its employees back to the office. However, the second wave struck, and the plan was postponed indefinitely.

In October 2021, Kulkarni and some of his colleagues were informed that they had to return to Bengaluru as physical offices could reopen soon. “Now, when we were planning to return to offices in January, the Omicron variant struck and WFH has been further extended. Though I get to spend a lot more time with my family, I feel going to the office is a different kind of experience,” said Kulkarni.

IT professional Rakesh Moorthy, 45, who works in a Switzerland-based MNC, was looking forward to rejoining office from the first week of January when Omicron struck. “I was working from home for almost two years and wanted to get back to the office but this new variant has struck. I do not know how long this pandemic will last,” said Moorthy.

Many companies planned the return of their workers to office as a means of balancing customer and employee needs. But tech campuses in and around Bengaluru are still deserted and only minimal staff are seen. Even the traffic around these campuses is low. 

“Many employers believed that even though the productivity of their workforce was higher while working from home, it was not [necessarily] the ideal output. Sometimes, this increased productivity was a result of the extra hours put in by employees while working from home and can lead to burnout. It was felt that prolonged work from home hampered creativity and there was a lack of spontaneity and ingenuity that was the essence of working in an office set-up with colleagues. It also had a cultural effect, because while working from home, people are latched onto only the colleagues they work directly with. This might not be desirable and a combination of these factors may have prompted companies to have their people back in the office,” said Sunil Bist, CEO, NetConnect Global, a technology services firm.

Technology firms like Drishti Technologies are open to people working from anywhere in the world. 

“We have an engineering office in Bengaluru and people are encouraged to work from the office if they want to. For instance, teams are welcome to do weekly meetings or work for some parts of the day or week in office. However, options for people to join remotely are always open. We are considering doing some offline meets in other hubs outside Bengaluru, such as in Mumbai and Pune,” said Arvind Saraf, head of engineering, Drishti Technologies.

In tech firms, through the first and second waves, engineers who were managing servers and infrastructure came to offices regularly. By the end of the second wave, senior and mid-management staff also worked from office. However, it is the lateral and the junior workforce, as well as professionals working in application development, testing, and cloud computing, who worked from home. The push from organisations, henceforth, would be to bring this workforce back to office, in a hierarchical fashion. It will be challenging as many of these employees had shifted to hometowns with a lower cost of living.

Many IT jobs, especially the ones that lend support to the office infrastructure, on-boarding of new technologies, and maintenance of networks, require the physical presence of employees. In some technologies, software and hardware are integrated, and while techies can access software from the comfort of their homes, hardware requires the presence of employees in offices. 

Many employers told THE WEEK that it might not be reasonable to have their employees back in office five days a week even in the long run. They said the only foreseeable compromise that leads to untampered productivity and company culture is a hybrid working environment where employees work around three days a week from the office and two days remotely. Some companies have left it to their team managers to decide how they should work, instead of pursuing a one-size-fits-all solution.

“With the uncertainty of the impact of new variants, it is a precarious situation. Although resuming work from the office seems difficult, organisations are taking chances given the significant vaccination rates. WFH is anyway a proven model in many aspects and companies can rethink either extending the WFH or adapting hybrid models, until there are studies on the new variant and we know what the actual impact is,” said Rekha K.K., manager, HR, Utthunga Technologies. 

HR experts point out that job requirements have become a lot more complex and timelines all the stiffer, which necessitates an environment of synergy to deliver projects on time. When employees are away from the base location, there is a lack of continuum. The unavailability of high-speed internet, hardware and software issues in hometowns can cause disruptions. These problems can be easily remedied in an office, which is much more controlled. 

“Over the last few months, several engineers who were hired haven't met their managers even once. The employee experience, which can be created in a physical premise, is unparalleled vis-a-vis a virtual one. Given the rising attrition in the technology space, employee expectations can also be better managed if all work in a common space,” said Vijay Sivaram, CEO, Quess IT Staffing.

In Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Gurugram office locations are in steep demand as organisations are expanding. “The need for space is definitely on the cards. The work environment has changed. Organisations will continue to focus on employee experience management and develop employee programmes that circle around learning, benefits and culture in 2022. The work environment will have to be transformed into being lighter, more comfortable, and less complex. Hybridisation will allow companies to have a lesser number of fixed seats and more variable seats (hot desks) which is not new in the tech space, but is only bound to increase,” said Sivaram.

But many companies have not renewed their office leases; some have vacated their offices partially or fully. “The new normal will be a combination of three categories of employees—fully-remote working, partially-remote working and complete-office. Accordingly, office spaces will undergo some changes in layout and design to facilitate flexibility,” said Aditya Narayan Mishra, director and CEO of CIEL HR Services.

Dedicated and preassigned workstations are giving way to flexible work areas, said Mishra. “Large parts of the office area are being allocated for specific areas of focus such as collaborative work, learning, social capital building and rejuvenation. Employees use the location that best suits their work from time to time,” said Mishra.

Technology companies are expected to follow a hybrid work culture and that seems to be the way forward. It is expected that hybrid models will continue for at least the near future, say for at least a year more or so in India among the IT companies. 

“If organisations are rigid they will lose out on hiring new talent. If organisations insist employees to only work from office then talent may pursue opportunities where hybrid or only WFH are given as options. Flexi work culture gives the benefit of cost rationalisation with regard to office space and it directly impacts profitability,” said Siva Prasad N., vice president and business head, TeamLease Digital.

Though the hybrid work environment is here to stay for technology firms, the base location of employees would eventually have to be the location of their offices, and not their hometowns. Tech companies would be approaching this gradually as more often than not employees have several aspects to consider such as their families and children before relocation. Companies would also try to expand their site location to Tier-II cities. Due to the migration currently underway, companies may try to shift their location closer to the employer's hometown.  

Many surveys show that productivity metrics prove that WFH is working for many organisations, increasing the probability of continuing with this model for a longer period. With WFH or hybrid strategies put in place, organisations are experimenting by implementing new policies, compensation structures for WFH or hybrid models are being revised, and there is also room for more process automation. Data-driven strategies are to be implemented, be it for productivity measuring, performance management and even for the emotional and mental wellness of employees.

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