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A new 'working' model

‘Work from Home’ is becoming common, with companies and employees moving beyond IT solutions & behavioural resolutions — it’s a long walk ahead but a beginning has been made

A new working model

Let's talk WFH, the new 'Work from Home' concept that has gripped corporates in India and the rest of the world, as businesses progressively embrace this new, forced phenomenon in a world crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic and its inscrutable death-grip on companies and economies. Here again, there have been two distinct huddles in industry sectors worldwide — the corporate haves and the have-nots. The 'haves' include sectors such as information technology and IT-enabled Services (ITeS), creative writers and journalists, communications agencies and bloggers, etc. They can function, albeit on crutches and at a slower pace. For the 'have-nots', the battle is going to be long and gory, for airlines, the hospitality sector, travel and tourism, real estate, automobile manufacturing and ancillaries, and so on. For them, the writing is on the wall. There will be no quick-fix or succour available for a long time.

If we talk India, the first few days of Lockdown 1.0 itself saw some 'haves' — fast-moving hi-tech companies — announce their WFH rollouts, with employees logging in from home on thousands of brand-new, hastily-formatted laptops. The business obligations of these companies were immediate, with client organisations pushing for real-time IT implementation, with their own business models being perilously impacted to the point of sudden death.

IT firms first to bell the cat

An easy example to cite here is that of Indian banks, which were directed by the Union Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India to defer instalment payments of all loan-holders for three months. Overnight, their server codes and software had to be rewritten and repayment algorithms re-stitched for millions upon millions of home loan, car loan and other debt instrument holders, across scores of Indian and MNC banks, and other lender categories. It was a sudden and unforeseen test of the WFH concept in India, really of the Internet itself as a true connector in this new global village, with India's IT firms forced to perform this gargantuan task not from the secure environs of their campuses but from the homes and living rooms of employees. They passed with flying colours and WFH received a defining pat on the back — realisation dawned in both IT services and client organisations that this could actually work!

Lockdown 2.0 saw companies in other industry sectors follow suit as they were forced to embrace the WFH model. With 21 days of Lockdown 1.0 behind them, the enormity of the Coronavirus fallout was beginning to be comprehended by businesses and individuals across the country, the beating of plates and bells and the blowing of conch shells notwithstanding. The lockdown, or shutdown if you will, was here to stay. More companies followed suit and a greater number of Indian white-collar workers began to pull up their socks, tighten their belts and knot their ties at home.

Letting go of 'Total Control'

Let's move along. With the ground rules, industry scenario and the 'desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures' maxim laid out, let's get to the nitty-gritty of 'WFH'. Because what WFH is doing is forcing a behavioural shift in both employers and employees, arm-twisting India's corporate managements to let go of their predilection with a highly-centralised model and dramatically reducing their notorious penchant for oversight and control. Companies with large campuses housing thousands of employees are now settling for an extreme form of distributed service delivery — from thousands of employee homes spread across cities and geographies.

Companies, while letting go, are getting their own back as well. As stated, desperate times call for desperate measures. 'Quartz' recently reported that some Indian IT companies have implemented employee productivity trackers like webcam-based movement capture, hourly time-sheet entry and of keyboards to ensure that employees at home are, indeed, working. Yugal Joshi, vice-president at Texas-based consultancy Everest Group, was quoted by Quartz: "This indicates a deep-rooted malaise in Indian IT & ITeS industry where the senior management generally mistrusts people," he added.

WFH competes with 'Stuck at Home'

Even amid this mist of mistrust, around 90 per cent of IT employees and 80 per cent of ITeS workers in India are today working from home, with only those performing critical or client-facing functions going to their places of work. These absolute numbers throw up an interesting new pogrom, that of accessibility and bandwidth. For other than these millions of WFH employees, there is today a much larger number of 'not-working-from-home' people and families. Stuck at home with few or no other options, most are glued to their TV sets and mobile phones, gobbling up content on Netflix, Prime and Disney Hotstar to spend their time, and surfing the gigabytes away to get access to games, news and information.

The Wi-Fi explosion may have happened in India but residential broadband connections remain patchy in most areas. Today's WFH warrior competes with these people too, for accessibility and reliable connectivity. Do remember, while the buffering of a home video or movie clip may be acceptable, slow or undependable access could spell disaster for mission-critical applications and delicate coding work being carried out by WFH employees of India's IT companies for 'Blue Chip' clients across the world.

The WFH trend is catching on…

A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study reveals that an increasing number of companies are planning to lower capital expenditure, increase salary cuts and layoffs and cut IT spends to ride out the COVID-19 storm. But even as that trend catches on, the propensity of managements to widen the WFH ambit is becoming more and more visible each day, especially so as they begin to realise two things — it is working, and it is leading to massive cost-savings. As a Garner study shows, telecommuting (read 'Work from Home') may be the new corporate way of doing things, with nearly a third of companies interviewed admitting that they plan to move on-site employees to the WFH model.

Closer home, this is becoming visibly clearer. In an earnings' call last week, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India's oldest and largest IT services company, said it would ask a majority of its 4.5 lakh employees globally, including 3.5 lakh in India, to work from home. Chief Operating Officer NG Subramaniam said against the industry average of around 20 per cent today, TCS would have as many as 75 per cent of its employees working from home by 2025. The model, called 25/25, would require far less office space than occupied today as not more than 25 per cent of its workforce would be needed at its facilities to be 100 per cent productive. Clearly, one month of pulling off some stellar projects while learning to mass-work from home has done the trick for TCS. Given the seething competition amongst the 'Big Five' in Indian IT services, and with scores of smaller players vying to break into the bigger league, the trend is sure to catch on.

…But for some, it is just not on

Leave aside any discourse on the WFH phenomenon and Indian IT and ITeS, the larger business reality remains that many industry segments that form the backbone of the economy just cannot function without offices and premises. For instance, we have micro, small and medium enterprises which are predominantly engaged in manufacturing and export activities, two key drivers of the Indian economy. With Lockdown 3.0 beginning today, MSMEs will stay out of action for some more time, and the cash-flow and jobs crisis alarm bells are only getting louder. For MSMEs, even with a 33-per cent workforce relaxation allowed in the premises under Lockdown 3.0, a major re-skilling exercise would have to be undertaken to fill up the 66-per cent void. The time, expertise and cash needed to do that are just not there.

Similarly, the tourism & hospitality sector and its part-dependent aviation sector, unlikely to see any resurgence for a long time. Here alone, over 4 crore jobs are at risk. The real estate and automobile sectors have an equally dismal outlook. While Noida and Gurugram in Delhi-NCR are sobering reminders of residential property over-supply, there are equally numbing images of scores of Japanese cargo ships carrying thousands of brand-new SUVs anchored off ports in the United States. There is no place to offload these vehicles; the offloading bays have been full for weeks and inventories are just not moving out to showrooms and to people.

Times are grim, and the pictures these times are conjuring up are grimmer still.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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