The Future of Remote Work in India

By Shefali Anand July 1, 2020
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Worker video chatting on her laptop computer

​When Tata Consultancy Services, India's largest infotech and outsourcing company with approximately 450,000 employees, reported recently that it would move 75 percent 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 working from home—which many companies in India strictly prohibited until earlier this year—will be more common once COVID-19 is over. Employers can lower office costs, and many employees say they are more productive at home and happy to save time by not 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 information technology (IT) conglomerate in Mumbai. Nonetheless, Sriram doesn't envision a drastic change.

But Sriram wouldn't have 75 percent of employees working from home. Telecommuting "is not going to become a universal principle in companies. It's going to be restricted to certain roles," he said.

Ideally, he said, companies will create hybrid work-from-home (WFH) models and give employees a choice as to whether they want to work remotely.

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Remote Work

Many employees may not welcome working from home permanently due to their personal circumstances. One common challenge is the physical infrastructure.

In the job hub of Mumbai, where real estate is 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 who recently graduated from college, live in guest accommodations, 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 remote employees to come into an office once or twice a week.

In recent weeks, Amruthraj said she has been getting calls from young professionals who say 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," Amruthraj said.

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 a 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," Chaudhury said.

For many employees, especially those from poorer economic backgrounds, going to an office also brings social prestige. "Getting ready to work, dressed for success, is a matter of pride," Sandhu said. That's taken away in a permanent WFH model.

Remote-Work Stress

One unexpected lesson from expanded working from home 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, and 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," Chaudhury said. "You can't log off. It's like you're always working."

Working from home can also present issues at home. Amruthraj recently got a call from a middle-age professional woman whose 85-year-old mother lives with her. The professional said her mother demands more attention and time now that she is at home.

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

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Challenges for Companies

While remote work can be ideal for an individual, it can take a toll on collaboration, impromptu meetings and making new connections with colleagues. "Social interaction is important for collaboration, innovation and creativity," Sriram said.

This was one reason that IBM, which had around 40 percent 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," Jose said of his company.

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," Sriram said. "The ability to evaluate the given knowledge and to create new knowledge and to be creative, in my view, needs a physical presence."

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 about topics that have nothing to do with the job. This is a lot harder to do virtually, Sandhu said.

Asking employees to "hot desk," in which they come in for a few days to use a desk and then clear out their photo frames and other personal items to make space for someone else, takes away the sense of belonging. "Lack of community and cultural assimilation will be a huge problem in my view," Sandhu said.

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.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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