Memo from the office: Work from home is still work in progress

Three months after companies started working from home, here is how the practice looks like. Work doesn’t seem to end for many employees but the workplace has become more democratic. With everything discussed over video, junior employees and top executives work together. Productivity has improved as people save time in commuting. Companies are still counting the cost of working remotely: IT giant TCS says it has added to costs and State Bank of India expects to save Rs 1,000 crore. The office can’t be done away with but work from home is now company culture, writes Suveen Sinha.

Suveen Sinha
21st July

In February 2013, Marissa Mayer, less than a year into her job as the CEO of Yahoo! Inc, banned remote working for all her staff. In a leaked internal memo, Mayer said she wanted everyone to be in office so they could forge a more connected company culture and productivity.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side... Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” said the leaked memo.

It sent ripples around the tech world, and also among the tribe that is these days called the "woke" people, and evoked dismay because Mayer was herself a new mother at the time. The headline of one of the many commentary pieces said, “Back to the Stone Age?”

That does feel like as long ago as the Stone Age, not just because Yahoo! is now unrecognisable from what it once was, and Mayer now runs a start-up that builds consumer applications enabled by artificial intelligence. In fact, so much water has flown under the bridge this year alone that Mayer's memo, and anything that occurred before Covid-19, could very well have been as old as the Great Deluge.

However, Mayer’s yearning for a work culture arising from team members working in close proximity was not unusual, nor has it become outdated. Organisations and leaders do swear by a team spirit rooted in people working closely together--not just intellectually or emotionally but also physically.

On June 28 last year, in an opinion piece on a digital news and features platform, Richard Lobo talked about the things Indian offices could do to prepare for millennial workers. Lobo, head of human resources at Infosys Technologies, talked about the importance of having an organisational culture and an integrated workforce.

Working lives

On June 27 this year, exactly a year since Lobo’s piece appeared, Infosys held its 39th annual general meeting—virtually—where Pravin Rao, the CFO, said the company was looking at a hybrid model in which a part of the workforce will continue to work from home and the other part from office. Rao however added the caveat, “It is too early to say how many will work from office in the future.”

That decision cannot be made in a cinch. The Indian IT industry employs 5 million people, of which 90 percent have been working from home since March. Any decision about how many continue from their homes and how many need to be in office can only be taken after an exhaustive assessment of the gains and losses in the last four months. The problem is that there isn’t any such data, certainly not something that companies are willing to give out at this point in time.

All services industries--especially IT, financial services, and hospitality--are people-intensive on both sides of the fence. They need a lot of people working for them and they need their people to be dealing with a lot of people who would be consuming and paying for the services. However, even within services, there are sectors.

In civil aviation, for instance, the choice is clear. Get to airports and fly those planes or there is not much to talk about in terms of operations and business. In information technology, work hours continue and they continue to be billed. For instance, BFSI (banking, financial services, and insurance), a large and lucrative client for IT services companies, may be suffering from the recession but their systems continue to be up and running. So, IT services providers remain in business, though they would be sweating over the medium- term financial health of these clients.

In banking, though, the lockdown has seen a curious phenomenon: a rise in productivity, according to reports. The reason is simple. In India’s financial hub, Mumbai, those who travel on the major routes spend an average of an hour in transit—one way. For some, this duration is closer to two hours. So, people are saving three to four hours of commute time each day, some of which, if not most, is spent working.

'Days don’t just end'

That comes with its own pitfalls. According to a senior executive working with a top private sector bank, work from home for him, and for most people he knows, has meant more hours at work. “Days just do not seem to end,” he says.

He was one of several people to whom Business Standard reached out to gather insights for this story. Most of them won’t speak on record, and those who did had little to say beyond the standard, ‘Work from home is an unfolding phenomenon for us, as it is, we are sure, for every other organisation."

There is some truth to that. There seems to be no one right approach to deal with the situation. For evidence, look no further than the divergent stances taken by Infosys and its larger rival, Tata Consultancy Services. As Infosys thinks hybrid, TCS wants to make work-from-home permanent for three quarter of its employees. The fourth quarter will have to be in office only a quarter of the time. This despite the fact that work-from-home has added to the costs for TCS.

“TCS has long-term leases. So, currently, it is all investment and more expenses,” said N Chandrasekaran, Chairman of Tata Sons, TCS’ parent, at the company’s annual general meeting, which happened to be the first virtual AGM by an Indian company.

While on-record conversations were ponderous to the point of being humdrum, there was, as usual, some food for thought on offer while speaking off-the-record, much of it about gender equality, though not in the way you might expect.

“Somehow, in India, the belief has gained ground that women prefer working from home. That is not entirely true. A lot of women prefer to come to office because it lends much-needed and visible 'work' element to their work-life balance. Otherwise, their work tends to get undervalued by their own people," said a senior executive of an IT company.

The other welcome outcome of work-from-home, counterintuitive again, is a democratisation of responsibilities. For critical assignments, which required international travel, usually the top executives would go because they were the decision makers (and arbiters of travel budgets). Now, with everything on video, even the junior staff can join meetings at the highest levels, provided, of course, they are critical to the project.

As a combination of these two aspects, says the executive of a well-regarded IT-enabled services firm, work-from-home should be seen as an opportunity to invest in talent. Techies are usually modern in their thinking and a number of them opt out of formal jobs to make time for other pursuits. They can be brought back into the mainstream if work-from-home is going to be the norm. That also applies to women who take career breaks -- short and long -- to devote themselves to home and hearth.

The question that remains unanswered is one that arises from Mayer’s memo. To some, her concerns about culture were easy to understand and appreciate. They apply to India as well.

Modern Indian IT companies, as they established the country as a global hub of services in the early part of this century, also ushered in a new corporate culture, strikingly different from how corporate India worked till then. It was like a teenager returning to the fold of her joint family after a stint studying in the United States and establishing a few new ways of living under the same roof.

Similarly, banks and hotels stand apart and become distinguished brands because of their culture and by the way they deal with their customers. The new era of banking in India is marked by use of technology as much as by the changed attitude of bank staff towards visitors to their branches. Old timers still shudder at the ordeal that 'bank work' used to be before the influx of modern private banks. Back then, only family members with maturity – a euphemism for vast reserves of patience -- were assigned bank work.

Things have changed so much that now a public sector bank appears to be taking the lead, a la TCS in IT, through its bold approach to work-from-home. State Bank of India, at its AGM on Tuesday, said a "Work from Anywhere" plan for Its 250,000 employees would be a key component of its business continuity plan. And, unlike TCS, SBI expects a financial windfall from it.

"The measure is expected to save us Rs. 1,000 crore through cost optimisation," said Rajnish Kumar, chairman of the country's largest bank, at the AGM.

However, CEOs and HR managers are also found asking themselves how they could ensure that their culture gets ingrained in the new people joining their workforce, especially because they expect millennials to comprise a rising proportion of their workforce. They would benefit from the ethics and values of their greyer colleagues.

As they grapple with that question, hotels have taken the concept of work-from-home to the next level of work-from-hotel, tapping into the needs of those looking for a 'workstation' that is neither home nor office. Hotels in the metros have allocated thousands of square feet for this clientele.

Now that Marissa Mayer's way cannot be practised for the foreseeable future, it may be a good time to look at the corollary. Depending on the culture of the company you work for and the nature of the boss you have, you might wonder how the ambience at your home might get affected as slivers of your office culture beam into your home every day.

(Suveen Sinha is an independent writer)

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