Bengaluru: Anmol Eknath, a senior manager at a Bengaluru-based MNC, feels he has been more productive since the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to work from home (WFH).
“Productivity has definitely improved,” he told ThePrint. “WFH has led to less commute and more focus on the job at hand. The time that is wasted on office politics and gossip has come down.”
But it has not exactly been a breeze for Sneha Mahadevan, a mother-of-two who works with a Bengaluru-based IT giant located in Electronic City.
“When I need to take client calls, my children will invariably be playing around. Once or twice, you can request your client to excuse the noises in the background, but after a point it starts to become embarrassing,” she said.
The lockdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way the information technology (IT) sector works, with employees logging in from home to keep companies running and cater to clients.
Many people cite internet connectivity problems and distractions to claim WFH is not sustainable in the long run. They also point out that working from home blurs the line between personal and professional life because it doesn’t allow you to just walk out of the office at the end of your shift.
Then there are other challenges — for example, the increased electricity bills due to staying home all day during peak summer.
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Others, however, see it as a landmark reform that can boost productivity by cutting out the time spent on commute and, as Eknath noted, “office politics and gossip”.
Supporters of the idea also note that it can help transform the jobs scenario by allowing companies to hire talent from tier-2 and tier-3 cities without requiring them to shift to India’s already congested urban landscape.
For young mothers who leave their jobs because they want to be with their children in the formative years, WFH offers an unprecedented potential to juggle work and family.
A new normal
Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru is perhaps the largest hub of the IT industry in the country with close to 15 lakh people believed to be employed in the sector locally.
While IT companies have been known to dabble in WFH through the years to allow employees some flexibility in their work hours, the lockdown has meant an unprecedented push to move the bulk of operations out of the workplace.
In March, when the lockdown first began, the business continuity planning or BCP teams of IT companies swung into action to ensure seamless work output.
Small- and medium-sized companies ThePrint spoke to said they had dispatched laptops, desktops and other necessities to employees to ensure work is not affected during the lockdown.
At companies such as Wipro, TCS, Infosys, HCL Tech and Mphasis, as much as 90 per cent of the workforce has been working from home without having stepped into offices for months together (the remaining 10 per cent have been attending work as part of a critical skeletal force allowed to visit offices). Meetings and negotiations are carried out via digital tools that have eased many a company’s run through the lockdown.
Eknath, the senior MNC manager quoted above, said he would like to “continue to work from home” after the lockdown ends. “Even though the hours put in are slightly longer, the end result is better performance of the whole team,” he added.
Rahul Ashok , a systems architect with a multinational telecom company, said his company has taken many steps to ease the transition for employees.
“Now that work has shifted to our residences, the company has provided employees the option to procure a WiFi dongle or broadband connectivity at their expense,” he said. “Companies have been reimbursing internet bills. We have been provided with laptops… Even power bills are being reimbursed on a case-to-case basis,” he added.
But Megha Gowda, a mother-of-two working as an HR manager with a mid-sized IT solutions company located at Bengaluru’s Manyata Tech Park, hasn’t had it easy.
“Sometimes there is no internet and there are breaks in connectivity. Even if you call the broadband call centres, they work for limited hours, making it difficult for us to resolve the issue,” she said.
“Last week, I had no internet for four days and I worked with the help of my mobile hotspot,” she added, referring to the technology that allows you to use phone internet to run other gadgets in the absence of broadband or Wi-Fi connectivity.
Some challenges are unique to the current lockdown, which has also forced school closures and led to the introduction of online classes as institutions look to make up for the time lost.
“My daughter is in standard 5. My wife and I have our laptops. With the kids being tutored through online classes, we have to share our laptops with them as well. It is very difficult to manage,” said Praveen Rathore, a software professional working with a Korean conglomerate.
“My work output does get affected at times, but our company has been quite accommodative.”
Serial entrepreneur K. Ganesh of GrowthStory.in, an entrepreneurship platform that promotes greenfield ventures, said while the pandemic has forced a complete structural change on the industry, it has its pros and cons.
On the positive side, many people love the fact that they do not have to waste their time commuting to office and back. They are able to save at least two hours of their time and spend that with their families, said Ganesh.
“The novelty of sudden recovery of time has brought cheer to many employees. But on the negative side, the boundary between work and home has blurred. Earlier, taking calls after work was seen as extra work, now it is part of the work hours,” he added.
WFH here to stay
The National Association of Software & Services Companies, an industry body better known as NASSCOM, estimates that up to 60 per cent of the IT industry’s work and up to 40 per cent of ITeS (IT-enabled services) work could shift to a WFH model in the next five years.
“For the industry, the first two weeks were very tough, but gradually it settled into a decent rhythm but it varies from company to company. Places where we have not got client permissions, or mission critical data where there is a need for high-end equipment for computing… are the only areas that are not functioning right now,” said Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer at Nasscom.
“NASSCOM members say that productivity has been higher with work from home than at workplaces… there is no concern on outputs as well. Companies have been appreciative of the fact that you have moved from a totally controlled workspace to a segregated model where employees work from home. But looking from a business perspective. there are sectors that have been impacted,“ Gupta added.
According to a report by the Karnataka government’s Department of Electronics, Information Technology (IT), Biotechnology (BT) and Science & Technology (S&T), published in June and shared with ThePrint, 90 per cent of IT companies and 95 per cent of multinationals in the sector said it has been business as usual despite WFH, even as sectors such as travel and hospitality have suffered a massive impact.
The company filings of larger Indian IT firms show that over 60 per cent of their revenues come from the US and another 30-35 per cent from other countries. With many of their clients coming to terms with the impact of the pandemic, the companies have become cost-conscious.
Companies have taken a lot of steps to cut costs, including putting a pause on hiring, salary hikes and promotions. In the short-term, the WFH arrangement doesn’t seem to have translated into much savings for companies, with many firms incurring expenses on making the transition smoother for employees.
“They (companies) don’t believe that it has necessarily been a cost-saving measure because you have your campuses, your operational costs may be marginally lesser but all of it does not go away. To make work from home effective, one needs to upgrade infrastructure at employees’ homes,” said Gupta.
However, she added that “in the longer term, when they reevaluate their real assets… there may be some difference in cost perspective”. “Right now, the savings are largely on travel and events,” she said.
KPMG, the professional services firm, stated in a report, titled COVID-19 React, Adapt and Recover — A perspective on the Indian Real Estate sector, this May that IT tenants will now re-evaluate, defer and curtail non-essential spends. “The resulting impact may significantly decelerate demand for commercial real estate from one of its core demand drivers,” the report said.
Added Ganesh, “One very clear-cut thing that Indian businesses see is infrastructure costs.”
“Real estate and rental are prohibitively and disproportionately high. This is one of the major challenges of businesses, especially those that employ a lot of people,” said Ganesh, adding that the cost of “infrastructure like air conditioning, utilities, power are disproportionally high as well”.
Infosys said in its annual report for 2019-20 that it spent nearly Rs 2,263 crore on infrastructure during the financial year, adding that “reducing capital expenditures other than any committed or non-discretionary expenditures” is one of the cost-cutting measures being envisaged.
Asked whether the demand for office spaces will reduce in the coming times, Michael Holland, CEO of Embassy Office Parks, a private tech parks portfolio, said “there could be significant reduction in the densities of the workplace, which could be offset by more flexible work styles including work from home”.
Among other things, one clear positive that a wider adoption of WFH entails is the opportunities it creates for new mothers and those who live away from India’s urban centres like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
For women, entering motherhood often means a short break from work that can set them back in the career path. With WFH, many women can hope to bridge this gap.
For example, WFH has helped Suma Chandrashekharan, who quit her job as a systems engineer in a US-based MNC after the birth of her first child last January, get back in the thick of things since her employer offered her to join them again.
“Since I can work from home, it helps me manage my household and work. Covid-19 has brought about structural changes in the work system and now work from home is not an exception, but the norm,” she said.
Permission to work from home can also help those from smaller towns get good jobs without the prospect of a shift of base.
Gupta said there were companies in Chennai that have allowed their employees to work from their hometowns three weeks in a month.
“There will be many more opportunities for small towns, but infrastructure needs to be fixed as there should be reliable power and broadband,” she added.
It remains to be seen how the WFH experiment pans out once the pandemic is controlled and social distancing is no longer a necessity, but it has definitely spurred companies to rethink convention and brought fresh spotlight on that bittersweet institution we know as the office.
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