For most employers and employees, there is no going back completely because the future of work is not in favour of returning to offices. And companies that try to turn the clock back to 2019 and insist on an 'all-office' model risk losing their best employees to competitors
The future of work is not in favour of returning to offices Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
In the pre-pandemic world, Yashpal Singh, 34, would spend two hours to and fro work, leaving him barely any time with his three-year-old daughter at home. He had resigned himself to fate till the Covid-19 outbreak prompted employers to implement the work-from-home policy. It came as a silver lining for Singh—not only did he save time and money, he claims his productivity also increased. And the icing on the cake: He has been able to see his daughter grow in front of him, every second, every minute. “I would like to work from home permanently,” says Singh, a resident of Jaipur, who is currently employed with an IT giant and does the night shift from 5.30 pm to 2.30 am.
It’s an option that’s ideal not only for Singh. Like him, many believe that if they are capable of working remotely—and if it has happened smoothly and effectively in the last two years—employers should not make it mandatory for them to return to office.
However, as the number of Covid-19 cases see a continuous fall across the country, most employers Forbes India spoke with hinted at implementing a hybrid model instead of allowing a permanent work-from-home structure. In the past six months, there were over 32 lakh searches for permanent and temporary jobs by Indians on naukri.com, a jobs platform. About 57 percent of these were for permanent remote jobs. After launching a new feature in July 2021—allowing recruiters to post jobs with options to work remotely or permanently outside office or from home on a temporary basis—the portal saw over 93,000 listings for permanent and temporary jobs; of these only 22 percent were for permanent remote jobs. “Given the increasing number of listings and searches for both permanent and temporary jobs, it’s safe to assume that both employers and job seekers realise the benefits of remote workforces,” says Pawan Goyal, chief business officer, naukri.com. “While there may be concerns around observed behaviour of moonlighting, it is at the discretion of each company to choose wisely as to what will work best for them… but remote jobs are here to stay.” There is a foundational change in how recruiters are setting up organisational structures. While uncertainty prevails due to the pandemic, recruiters are acknowledging the benefits of work-from-anywhere like access to talent and more inclusion, and are now beginning to make permanent changes to the human resource (HR) and infrastructure requirements at a corporate level, explains Goyal.In general, while both large and small companies have posted all three types of jobs—regular, temporary work from home and permanent remote jobs—data reflects that IT software, software services, ITeS, and recruitment sectors are posting more permanently remote jobs. Most others prefer the hybrid model.
What employers want
While Accenture, an IT services and consulting company, has not set a specific date for employees to return to work, it has adopted a ‘no-one-size-fits-all’ approach. How, when and where employees will work from will vary according to the business, the team and type of work. For instance, at its advanced technology centres, staffers have the option to choose their own work location from any of the cities where Accenture has a presence. It is also in the process of setting up its offices in select cities such as Jaipur, Indore and Coimbatore. “This will offer people a healthy balance between flexibility and the in-person connection that is vital to their professional development and growth,” says Lakshmi C, Accenture’s managing director, lead-human resources, India.
In early 2020, Tata Consultancy Services was one of the first firms to announce a permanent remote work strategy—25 by 25—with only 25 percent of its employees expected to work anytime from office and not spending more than 25 percent of their time there. However, the company now plans to transition to a hybrid model. “As the Covid-19 situation improves, and now that our associates and families are vaccinated and choose to spend time both at office and home, we are opting for a hybrid model,” says Sathya Mehta, HR head–global policies and talent transformation.
Infosys, another IT major, is also set to welcome its employees back, but in a phased manner. Ninety-six percent of its workforce works remotely, but with the hybrid model, it expects up to 50 percent of its employees to work from office on a voluntary basis. “Our view is that the future will be hybrid with a mix of employees coming in daily, some working fully remote and the rest using a mix of both modes. We believe this will best suit our business needs as well as allow us to provide flexible work options to our current employees, and also attract many new ones,” says Richard Lobo, executive vice president, head HR. Most companies in other sectors such as ecommerce and consumer durables are following suit. Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals Ltd. for instance, is offering a mix of hybrid and work-from-anywhere model. Various teams at the firm have been given the option to work from office or any other location. “A part of our leadership team—that is expected to be in the head office—is currently working from various places. In fact, I was working from abroad for a sizeable period,” says Satyajit Mohanty, vice president-HR.
Ecommerce giant Flipkart has also decided to opt for a hybrid model considering in-person meetings become important for taking crucial business decisions. The company has also realised that all employees don’t prefer working from home due to various circumstances. Therefore, as the corporate offices reopen in March, the company will offer employees the choice to work remotely as well as from office on different days of the week.
“We believe that the external environment has stabilised and reached a stage where we can welcome employees back to office in a safe manner,” says Krishna Raghavan, chief people officer, Flipkart. “Our workplace policies will ensure that people are given appropriate time to manage relocation, childcare, elder care and other responsibilities, as we make a transition to this hybrid model.”
Other companies such as Duroflex, a sleep solutions firm, are stressing on the importance of peer interaction, learning and a sense of belonging, and hence opting to go hybrid. “Over the past two years, we have all felt that though online meeting tools are highly efficient, they still, in a way, do not ensure communication as freely as compared to people meeting in person. Therefore, it is important for people to meet in person occasionally for the team to function well,” says Smita Murarka, chief marketing officer.
The Souled Store, a clothing startup, has a similar philosophy. While the founders come in almost every day voluntarily, the teams have been asked to work from office for two-three days and remotely on other days. “Our company largely consists of various teams working separately, but they are interlinked. At times, it becomes imperative for different teams to coalesce, sit together, and get on the same page. We also try to make the days in office a more wholesome experience… we order lunch, have board game sessions, watch movies after work—the human connection is important in times like these as well,” says Rohin Samtaney, co-founder.
Uber is also becoming a hybrid workplace and its employees have been given the flexibility to choose their preferred office location. “Employee-oriented workplace and flexibility have been the mainstays of our policies. While in-person collaboration has its own merits, we have always valued flexibility even before the pandemic forced the work-from-home switch,” says Divya Garg, head-HR, Uber India and South Asia.
As long as work is done
Last month, Meesho adopted a boundary-less approach after studying multiple future of work models. “We have seen a lot of excitement and receptivity among our employees in welcoming and accepting the new policy,” says Ashish Kumar Singh, CHRO.
While the office will be headquartered in Bengaluru, the company will look to set up satellite offices across the country based on talent demand and density. There will be annual workations to foster team bonding and collaboration, and quarterly summits to brainstorm, reflect and review goals. Additionally, there will also be virtual bootcamps, and meet-and-greet sessions for new joinees. The company will offer employees the chance to join location-based regional committees such as sports, marathons, community volunteering and more.
“Our boundary-less workplace model is permanent. With utmost priority on employee centricity and empowerment, employees have and will continue to be at the centre of everything we do,” adds Singh.
After conducting an internal survey, foodtech startup Swiggy implemented a policy structured on employees’ job roles. Certain number of employees will come to office up to thrice a week, while the others can work remotely throughout the year. These employees—who form a large majority—will come together in their base location for a week, once every quarter. And a certain set of employees, who are fleet managers, directly managing the delivery partners, will work five days a week from their base location.
“In the past two years, several employees have completely relocated, some choosing to remote-work permanently. We will continue to consider such requests if team dynamics and business goals are unaffected. This also means the doors for global talent have opened,” says Girish Menon, head-HR.
Jayasankar Reddy Singam is one such example. The 32-year-old lead programmer at a global software services company in Bengaluru relocated to his village in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district with his wife and two children two years ago. He’s been able to work seamlessly without any connectivity issues. His company, however, has opted for a hybrid model and asked employees to return to office twice a week from mid-April. Singam is not keen to go back though.
“I really want to continue working from my village, I don't wish to move back to the city and pay a hefty rent. I'm trying to convince my senior managers to let me continue working from my village," he says.
The talent war
Industries are witnessing an unprecedented war for talent across the globe. And two years into the pandemic, the talent base has become accustomed to a remote working environment and benefited from flexibility at work.
Given the situation, organisations which offer more flexibility to talent and constraint them less stand to gain, says Jaismon Emmanuel, senior vice president-business excellence at ITC Infotech. Bengaluru-based ITC Infotech recently collaborated with Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury of Harvard Business School to develop a framework that aims to narrow the bridge between clients and employees on a work-from-anywhere basis. It will help with hire-from-anywhere, enhance greater workplace inclusion, improve talent retention, and enable cost savings and operational benefits.
“Given that workers are seeking flexibility for varied reasons, my prediction is that companies that adopt work-from-anywhere ahead of others will disproportionately attract and retain talent,” says professor Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School.
“In contrast, companies that try to turn the clock back to 2019 by insisting on an “all-office” model will risk losing their best employees to competitors who will offer such workers greater flexibility.”
Goyal of naukri.com agrees. “Companies will stand to lose out on a limited set of talent that is looking out for only remote opportunities. Having said that, there is also a significant talent pool that is still open to work-from-office and will continue to apply for relevant and exciting growth opportunities. But looking at the trends, it would be safe to say that the hybrid working model is here to stay in the foreseeable future and may continue to see an uptick.”
Do it right
The transition to return to offices could require the same amount of mental energy and preparation as it did when we were looking to convert our bedrooms into offices. This, coupled with anxieties related to logistics, household responsibilities and worries related to commute, will require employers listening to such fears, says Tanuja Babre, a consultant for Unicef and visiting faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “One of the things that employers can do is to build a gentle start—give the employees a timeline of when things will resume as opposed to a date—because that will help with habit formation.”
It is also important to understand that people have been working in a different reality and there are chances that being back may make them feel lost even in a familiar territory. “We were forgiving when the transition to working from home happened… it should be a similar situation now where employers manage their own expectations and create flexibility as they stand to benefit from a hybrid model. If there is rigidity during the transition, we may witness employees leaving work or attrition rates going up,” explains Babre.
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