On March 24, 2020, when Lockdown 1 was imposed in India, its implications were estimated but not fully quantified. The full impact of that lockdown would unravel only weeks later. It is estimated that while more than 140 million lost their jobs, millions more faced salary cuts. The informal economy was severely impacted, and for many, the future of work seemed bleak and uncertain.
As industries struggled to cope, one of the first to reboot was the IT industry, which shifted gears and started working from home (WFH) ensuring minimal disruption of services. Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, almost 90% of the 4.3 million of Indiaâ€™s IT workforce moved to work from home. From initial wariness and scepticism to quick adoption and increased productivity, the shift to â€˜work from homeâ€™ was soon complete. Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom says that â€˜work from homeâ€™ increased performance by about 13% and even resulted in lower attrition levels.
WFH is here to stay
Employees are enjoying their newfound freedom with flexible working hours, savings in commute time and a better work-life balance. They are increasingly reluctant to go back to the old ways of working. On the other hand, employers see this as an opportunity to move away from expensive rentals and save on employee transportation, electricity costs and facilitiesâ€™ management. Evangelists of WFH went on to predict the death of the brick-and-mortar office as top corporations in India vacated almost six million sq ft of Grade A commercial office space during the first half of 2020, to work from home.
The many advantages of WFH have led Tata Consultancy Services to announce that by 2025, only one-fourth of its workforce needs work from their facilities at a time and the others could work remotely. Infosys plans to have 50% of its employees working from home. Deutsche Bank is considering 40% work-from-home permanently. With the flexibility of â€˜work from homeâ€™, the insurmountable challenges to transborder movement of tech professionals suddenly seemed more manageable. Men who left homes in search of work leaving behind their aged parents suddenly found that work need not mean separation. Women who had to sacrifice their careers for commitments at home suddenly found new doors opening for them.
Digital technologies, intelligent networks and adaptive management practices will be critical to this transformation and make it possible for employees to blend their work and life seamlessly. With workplaces distributed across homes, offices and mobile devices, employees will have the flexibility to choose their mode of working, based on the requirements of their job and choices of their team.
Work from home has however not been without its share of problems. Lack of space at home created problems for some, while inappropriate working conditions led to health issues for others. After the initial euphoria, some reported a fall in productivity and performance. Many have felt that the absence of physical interaction is negatively impacting the ability to ideate, innovate and solve complex challenges. Face-to-face interaction vital to nurturing relationships and facilitating collaboration, has been absent, leading to reduced mental wellbeing. People working from home are vulnerable to longer working hours, interruptions, lack of peer support, loneliness and in some cases even greater stress.
The future lies in a blended model
Despite these many problems, work from home is here to stay. The future, however, lies in a blended model that combines remote and home-based work in different proportions based on the nature of work and team preferences. Managers will need to upgrade their skills to be able to motivate, manage, and evaluate performance remotely. The right combination of technical and people skills will be critical for building a work environment that promotes trust and belonging. The companies that can make this happen and deliver the right digital experience will attract and retain talent, improve productivity, and succeed.
Driving this change would be technology agile companies and responsive Governments that make changes in legislation and regulations. Responding to the requests of the IT industry, the Government of India recently issued guidelines for Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and IT Enabled Services (ITES) companies to enable employees to 'Work from home' and 'Work from anywhere'. In the process, it also removed several reporting and regulatory compliance requirements for such companies. The Government of India believes that these new rules will be game changers for Indiaâ€™s $200 billion technology services industry and help India retain its competitive advantage.
Indiaâ€™s technology services industry has been quick to realise that the workplace of the future will be distributed. It has quickly capitalised on the change from â€˜Office by defaultâ€™ to â€˜Remote by defaultâ€™. Consequently, the demand for technology professionals from India has seen an increase of two to three times from pre-pandemic levels. Global employers such as Amazon, Salesforce, SAP, Instahyre, Techfynder, Interviewbit, are actively recruiting from India for remote work. Like Y2K, the Covid pandemic could turn out to be the much-needed boost for the Indian IT industry.
(The author is an officer of the Indian administrative service, views expressed above are personal.)