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100% Work From Office may well be history even as COVID ebbs

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Companies are breaking down large offices to create smaller workstations apart from offering employees freedom to choose their way of working and even creating digital clones of factories — something HR managers say would have taken 15 more years if not for COVID.​

100% Work From Office may well be history even as COVID ebbs
When the COVID-induced lockdowns started in 2020, companies faced an unprecedented crisis and scrambled to rethink work boundaries almost overnight. As deaths mounted and infections spread rapidly in closed spaces, working from home (WFH) was an uneasy arrangement managements had to embrace despite initial tech constraints.
Every time infections dropped, businesses tried to bring back employees to formal office set-ups, but the emergence of new COVID variants have marred those plans, giving way to a new normal. Going to office or working from home became a decision guided by the COVID curve, corresponding government guidelines and employees' comfort. A balance had to be struck, given the uncertainties around how the virus might behave.
The new era of work had its advantages and drawbacks—both for employees as well as employers. For employees, particularly in big cities, it easily saved 2-3 hours of commute everyday, plus savings in transport costs. Many returned to their home towns, saving on rent, others were able to pursue hobbies they had previously been unable to, devote more time to family, look after ageing parents, punt on stocks and crypto, and for the enterprising, take up a part time job without their employer’s knowledge.
It worked well for the companies as well, which were able to get more work out of their staff, in some cases, cut monthly allowances, and most important, save a big sum on rent.
With the third wave of COVID receding, employees and employers are grappling with the same set of questions: 100% Work From Office? 100% Work From Home? Hybrid model?
Taking boundary-less approach
Many firms — such as Tata Steel and Meesho and global companies like Meta, Twitter and Microsoft — trashed the age-old norm of calling everyone to office and opened their hearts to letting their staff work from their living rooms.
Apart from letting employees choose to work from anywhere up to 365 days a year, Tata Steel is building digital clones of its factories. The firm started a pilot in Jamshedpur where staff can access the control room anywhere.
"This policy is a shift in mindset from monitoring to creating a trust and outcome-based work culture," said Suresh Dutt Tripathi, vice-president, HR management, Tata Steel.
Meesho said the company had studied multiple future work models to arrive at the "boundary-less approach". "This will also give talent across the globe an opportunity to build for Bharat with Meesho," Ashish Kumar Singh, chief HR officer, Meesho, said.
Putting hybrid model to test
Most other firms are looking to adopt a hybrid work environment and insist not all functions can be serviced remotely.
Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), one of India's largest private-sector employers and the fourth-largest employer among listed firms, wants to see its campuses bustling with youthful energy in the coming months.
Milind Lakkad, chief HR officer, TCS, said that since the COVID situation was improving, the company would be getting its employees back to office. Still, no more than 25 percent of their associates would work from an office at the same time.
"We are committed to adopting the 25x25 model. An important part of the 25x25 journey is to bring people back to physical offices and gradually transition into the hybrid work model," Lakkad said.
Rival IT firm Wipro will adopt a flexible approach, too. "From March 3, fully-vaccinated employees who are managers and above will have the option to return to work twice a week. We will continue to extend the work-from-home arrangement for others," Wipro said.
'Full strength in office is history'
HR managers now say having a dedicated place of work and expecting employees to operate from there is a "thing of the past". In part, this trend may have been forced by the talent in many sectors—particularly IT, and that the fact that many employees are now insisting that they be allowed to work from anywhere they choose. With many companies willing to give that flexibility, employers who take a rigid approach may find themselves at a disadvantage.
“Work-life balance has improved, and people have new hobbies, etc. They don't want to change this lifestyle now,” Rajendran Dandapani, director of technology, Zoho Corp, said
Agrees Ashwini Kumar, general manager (India) and vice-president, MPOWER Financing.
"We have seen a high demand for work from home from our employees, said, adding there were no immediate plans for a full-fledged back to office, since performance and productivity have not been impacted.
Sameer Bendre, chief people officer, Persistent Systems, says pandemic has changed the way in which employees view work, but there needs to be a balance as well.
"The flexibility of WFH has increased employees' expectations,” he said. “But organisations would love to have employees WFO. It has advantages ranging from team camaraderie, employee engagement, better innovation, etc. Still, we have an opportunity to achieve a golden mean, that is partial WFO – balance WFH."
It is a balance which IVM Podcasts is also looking to achieve, given that the nature of work demands that.
“Some of our employees will continue to WFH should they prefer it,” Kavita Rajwade, co-founder, said. “However, some functions of our business require a high degree of collaboration and technical assistance," of IVM Podcasts, said.
Incentives for resuming on-site jobs
Some companies are giving incentives to employees who want to resume working from office.
Sapna Sukumar, vice-president of HR at Cashfree Payments, said they had a hybrid work model. Still, they are "facilitating relocation" through benefits like house settlement leaves, accommodation in hotels, airfare tickets, reimbursements for relocation, etc., for those who want to return to the formal work environment.
Employees are also forcing organisations to provide flexibility, time-based working, contract working, etc.
With employees looking at their work life in a new light, employers are being forced to follow suit.
"There was a time when coming to the office was the only way to establish that one was truly working.,” Pia Shome, chief people officer, U GRO Capital, said. We all were forced to drop that notion when the pandemic taught us that right from hiring new people, training them, getting new clients, and opening branches were all possible online," she said.
And it is evident that companies are trying to adapt to the new reality.
“We have invested significantly to upgrade our systems to prepare better for long-term hybrid working," Amir Bharwani, Head HR, eClerx Services, said.
What do staff surveys say?
Cisco undertook an internal survey and found that almost 80 percent of its global staff preferred to work outside of the office on most days.
"The switch to remote work wasn't challenging for Cisco. However, the pandemic period revealed how productive teams can be without being in the same room, maybe ever," Minhaj Zia, director for collaboration sales, Cisco India & SAARC, said. "So, we have permanently moved to a hybrid work model."
According to an internal dip-stick survey conducted by Provana, around 45 percent of their employees were willing to work from the office. Still, Dipankar Kalita, head of HR at Provana, said the firm follows the hybrid model to give freedom to its employees.
Holding on to cost savings
Dandapani of Zoho Corp says it has also realised one size does not fit all.
He said firms want to return to the way things were in 2019, but they are also looking at the benefits of hybrid working, apart from cost savings.
"We are still debating what the right formula is like everyone else across the world,", he said, adding, "we expect our managers to use common sense in making decisions on this."
Rethinking future of offices
"We open offices on Monday, but we continue to be predominantly hybrid," Suman Gopalan, chief HR officer, FreshWorks, said. "What we haven't done? Force people to make a choice."
Gopalan said 50 percent of their staff wanted to come back to office in October 2020. But nearly 16 months down the line, the sentiment is changing. "Many are bored of working from home," she said.
The firm is now thinking of a hub strategy.
"We used to have large offices. Looking at how talent is spread now, we are trying to create hubs in parts of the country where employees can gain in-office experience," Gopalan said, adding the policy was evolving.
And while savings on office rent is a big factor, some companies seem to be thinking beyond it.
"Corporate occupiers are seeking to bring their workforce back to the office to deal with the significant increase in hiring, up by about 20 percent, and to counter the increased attrition caused, in part, by disconnection from the workplace," Michael Holland, CEO, Embassy REIT, said.
"There has also been some concerns on data privacy and moonlighting, which is leading to misuse of productive time."
(With inputs from Reema Tendulkar, Shilpa Ranipeta, and Jude Sannith)
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