Indian Companies Prepare to Extend Working from Home

By Shefali Anand September 7, 2020
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As the spread of COVID-19 and lockdowns in India continue for longer than expected, many companies are switching gears to assist their remote-working employees for the long haul.

Some are sending ergonomic chairs and computer accessories to employees' homes, providing allowances to set up enhanced home offices, re-evaluating benefits and introducing new days off to prevent burnout.

"Our endeavor is to hear the voices of our employees while catering to their health, well-being and sustenance," said Manu Wadhwa, CHRO of Sony Pictures Networks India, a media and entertainment company in Mumbai.

In August, Sony Pictures sent wireless headsets to each of its employees across India. It has also revised benefits to suit the work-from-home setup, such as raising the limit for reimbursing home Internet and mobile-device costs. Wadhwa said Sony is instituting changes that will make remote working sustainable for good.

"We would move to a hybrid model" in which staff will have the option of working from the office or anywhere they wish, Wadhwa said.

In late March, India imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to check the spread of the pandemic. Though the nationwide lockdown has been lifted, many states continue to impose restrictions on the movement of people and public transport and on the percentage of staff who can be present in an office.

"We now see that this is going to go on for much longer," said Harpreet Sandhu, vice president of HR at India Mortgage Guarantee Corporation (IMGC), a loans guarantor based in Gurgaon.

When the lockdown was first imposed, IMGC gave laptops to employees to work from home, but it is now sending workers desktop setups, Sandhu said. The company also is reimbursing its operations staff for home Wi-Fi and mobile-device costs, she added.

For the sales staff, who need to be out in the field, the company has initiated a sanitization allowance, Sandhu said, so employees can buy sanitizers, gloves, face masks and anything else needed to keep them safe.

New Policies Launched

Some companies have created new policies for remote work.

RPG Group, a conglomerate in Mumbai, unveiled a remote-working policy that went into effect Sept. 1 and gives all employees a choice to work remotely up to 75 percent of the time.

"This policy is not just for the current times, but beyond" COVID-19, said Supratik Bhattacharyya, chief talent officer at RPG.

Hike, a Delhi-based maker of chat messaging and other social media products, said in late August that it is going "remote first" for the rest of 2020. The company has delivered ergonomic chairs and compact tables to its employees who live in Delhi and nearby, according to a spokeswoman. Those who live elsewhere will be reimbursed up to 10,000 rupees (US$135) to buy necessary furniture, she said.

In addition, Hike will pay up to 40,000 rupees (US$540) to buy tech accessories, depending on an employee's requirements, the spokeswoman said.

Re-Evaluating Compensation

Many companies also have reworked elements of compensation to make them more relevant to the times. One nonprofit in Mumbai has cut down the amount of leave travel allowance (LTA) provided to employees.

"This is a redundant component right now given the fact that travel is at its all-time low," said Susmita Sen, head of HR advisory practice for Sannam S4, a consulting firm that runs HR for the nonprofit. Sen said the nonprofit replaced part of the LTA with allowances to pay for home-office infrastructure.

Some employers have sought consultants to help them make sure their employees who are working from home are comfortable, said Bharati Jajoo, founder of Body Dynamics, an ergonomics specialist in Bengaluru. Her firm has rolled out a home-office ergonomic plan for the Indian unit of an American software company that has about 2,500 employees in India.

"Employees were complaining about aches and pains, physical discomforts and not being able to work for long hours," Jajoo said. Many of them had been working from couches and beds, she said.

Since June, she has given virtual consultations to nearly 800 employees of this company, assessing their home environment, workstations and infrastructure to make them most comfortable.

Many companies recognize that working from home has led to employees' working longer hours, with fewer breaks between virtual meetings and calls, possibly leading to greater anxiety and stress. Gurgaon-based Deutsche Telekom Digital Labs, which makes digital products for Germany's Deutsche Telekom, introduced an additional day off to help employees cope with the fatigue brought about by working from home.

"We have plans to continue this practice in subsequent months," said Nihar Mathur, Deutsche Telekom Digital Labs' head of people and culture. The company also introduced an open-leave policy, which allows for unlimited leave in the year without losing pay. "Given how the medical situation is, you never know who needs leave when," Mathur said.

At Sony Pictures, Wadhwa and her team were worried that most of the staff hadn't been taking holidays since the COVID-19 lockdowns. So the company introduced a policy: Every quarter, employees must take three days of mandatory leave, called "mandies." The goal is to ensure that staff take meaningful time away from their screens, even if they are not physically going anywhere.

"Staycation is as good as a vacation," Wadhwa said.

In addition, Sony has introduced "zero hours" during the workweek, to be decided by the employee. At this time, the employee is not expected to respond to calls, e-mail or messages. Employees can also choose to have a no-meeting day-"one day when you do not have burnout from the screen in front of you," Wadhwa noted.

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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