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Why 75% WFH Isn't Feasible in India

​When Tata Consultancy Services, India's largest infotech and outsourcing company with around 450,000 employees, reported recently that it would move 75% of its employees to work from home permanently by 2025, it created a stir. But most HR experts think Tata will be the exception, not the rule.

To be sure, experts believe that work from home - which was a strict no-no at many companies in India until earlier this year - will be more common once Covid-19 is behind us. Employers can lower office costs, and many employees say they are more productive at home and happy to save time commuting.

"This is definitely the beginning of a change," said Yogi Sriram, former head of Group HR and now an advisor at Larsen & Toubro, an engineering and IT conglomerate. However, Sriram doesn't envision a drastic change.

"I don't agree with the 75% work from home," he said. "WFH is not going to become a universal principle in companies. It's going to be restricted to certain roles."

Ideally, he said, companies will create hybrid WFH models and give employees a choice as to whether they want to work remotely or not.

"Everybody who has done WFH for some period of time longs to go to an office," said Sriram.

In addition, many employees may not welcome permanent WFH due to their personal circumstances. One common challenge is the physical infrastructure.

In the job hub of Mumbai, where real estate is very expensive, many professionals live in small two- or three-bedroom apartments along with their partner, children or parents, or all three.

"Where is the space for an exclusive workstation?" said Sheetal Sandhu, Gurgaon-based Group CHRO for ICRA, a credit ratings and research firm.

Many young professionals, such as those recently graduated from college, live in guest accommodations or share apartments, which provides them with little space or privacy. In some of the guest accommodations, the wi-fi is patchy, leading to stress and anxiety for employees.

"We are seeing people becoming more irritable, more angry," said Brunda Amruthraj, a clinical psychologist in Bengaluru, and founder-partner of Zeitgeist, which runs employee assistance programs for various companies.

Leaving large cities also may not be an option for some employees, especially if companies ask WFH employees to come into an office once or twice a week.

In recent weeks, Amruthraj said she has been getting calls from young professionals saying they miss the office cafeteria and access to the gym and other facilities that are available in large IT campuses and offices in India. "You don't have those luxuries at home," said Amruthraj.

Young people also lose out on experiential learning if they work alone.

"If I see my manager in a meeting, there's a lot of stuff that I can learn from what he's doing," said Ritika Chaudhury, a 28-year-old supply chain manager for an Mumbai-based textile company. In a digital meeting, however, "you don't get a sense of the emotional part at all."

Then there are the intangible benefits. "I don't go to the office just to work; it's fun to go to an office," said Chaudhury.

For many employees, especially those from poorer economic backgrounds, going to an office also brings social prestige.

"Getting ready to work, dressed for success, it's a matter of pride," said Sandhu. That's taken away in a permanent WFH model.

Remote Work Stress

One unexpected learning from expanded WFH has been the extent of stress and anxiety it can cause, since professionals aren't always able to draw a line between office and home time.

"My wife said to me: you're more stressed now than when you regularly went to work," said Tojo Jose, CHRO at Muthoot Fincorp, a finance company headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram.

The demarcation of office and home time is particularly difficult for people who aren't in senior roles, because they can't say 'No' to their managers, or if they do, they may be seen as arrogant.

"There's a lot of extra calls taking place to get the hang of what you're doing and what you're not doing," said Chaudhury. "You can't log off. It's like you're always working."

The demarcation can be tough on the home front also. Amruthraj, the counselor, recently got a call from a middle-aged professional woman whose 85-year-old mother lives with her, saying that her mother demands more attention and time now that she is at home.

"How do you form these barriers and say you're working?" said Amruthraj. "When they were going to work, they could clearly demarcate."

Challenges for Companies

While remote work is ideal for individual efforts, it can take a toll on collaboration, impromptu meetings and making new connections with colleagues.

"Social interaction is important for collaboration, innovation and creativity," said Sriram of Larsen & Toubro.

This was one reason that IBM, which had had around 40% of its staff working remotely for a decade, reversed its policy in 2017 and asked people to come into the workplace.

In physical meetings, "the decision-making is faster," said Jose of Muthoot.

Learning and development also can suffer in a fully WFH setting. Though information can be shared via a digital medium, "learning is much more than just this kind of a transmission," said Sriram. "The ability to evaluate the given knowledge and to create new knowledge and to be creative, in my view, needs a physical presence," he said.  

Sriram advocates what he calls "phygital" training - a combination of physical and digital training.

Permanent remote work also impacts camaraderie and the connectedness that employees have with the organization. In a physical office, managers can go from desk to desk to do an 'empathy check' on staff, chatting on topics that have nothing to do with their job. This is a lot harder to do virtually, said Sandhu.

Asking employees to do 'hot desking' - in which they come in for a few days to use a desk, and then clear out their photo frames and other personal belongings from the desk to make space for someone else - takes away the sense of belongingness.

"Lack of community and cultural assimilation will be a huge problem in my view," said Sandhu.

While her company hasn't set any target yet for their future workplace model, given the tradeoffs, she personally favors more staff coming back to the office than not.

"I would rather say 75% in office and 25% at home," she said.  


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