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Work from home and presentations in PJs

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 27, 2020 Published on March 27, 2020

Boss mom: Employees are multi-tasking domestic chores and family time as they work from home   -  SHAJU JOHN

Employees the world over are working from home as they attempt to sidestep a virulent disease. This may not be bad news for companies looking to cut overhead costs. Employees, too, have flexible timings and zero commute to look forward to. But given the challenges of maintaining work-life balance, what does this imply for the mental and physical well-being of employees and their families?

At 9 every morning, Arunima (not her name) is ready for work. The Bengaluru-based computer scientist, employed by a multinational software firm, logs on to her system, with a steaming mug of coffee by her side. It’s like any other day. Almost.

The difference is that she has not stepped out of her house. She sits in one corner of her bedroom, talking to her bosses and her clients, and pecking furiously away at her keyboard. Occasionally, when there is no video call scheduled, she lolls on her bed, the laptop on her tummy.

“The downside of working from home is that I find I am working overtime, but am not as productive as I was in my office. That’s because a lot of the time goes in phone discussions and meetings because we are all sitting far apart,” she says. “The good part is that I am having breakfast every day. I used to largely miss this meal for I was always rushing to get to work,” she says.

Quite like her, Navya Garg, a Std VI student of Shiv Nadar School, Noida, is ready for the day ahead. After she has donned her freshly ironed uniform, buckled her belt and strapped on her watch, she is all set to appear for her social science paper for her final exams this year. Instead of heading to the front door, however, she goes into her bedroom-cum-study. Navya will “write” her exam, but online.

Distance teaching: A teacher at Shiv Nadar School imparts an online class to students   -  COURTESY: SHIV NADAR SCHOOL

 

She wears her uniform, she says, to feel tethered to her school. “That’s when I feel serious, as if I’m in school,” she tells BLink.

As India enters an unprecedented three-week lockdown to battle the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is urging the public to work from home (WFH) and “not be out on the roads”. As a concept this can, of course, only apply to a small segment of the country’s workforce. The unorganised sector made up of daily wagers, contract workers and farm hands, among others, stands excluded. The rest are, meanwhile, trying to make the most of WFH, for better or worse. And while this is just the start of the experiment, it is moot whether this new work culture will outlive the virus.

Missing in action: Work from home isn’t an option for most of India’s unorganised workforce   -  ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

 

Learning to go virtual

Survival is the name of the game, says Rajneesh Singh, managing partner of Noida-based Simply HR Solutions. After the lockdown announcement, the firm received panic calls from organisations that were unsure how to make the transition to WFH viable.

But most people are gradually moving from panic to a point of inflection.

India’s IT sector, for instance, has been an early adapter. According to an Economic Times report, as many as 3 million, or half the country’s IT workers, have already begun working from home since the Covid-19 crisis. So have most knowledge creation companies, who produce specialised content and research.

“This is a moment for tech. Every tech platform-based company is seeing it [WFH] as a massive opportunity to get their product leveraged as companies search for ways to function remotely,” says Singh.

Employers embattled by the coronavirus-driven lockdown and a consequent economic slump, are exploring the option of using a virtual workspace where collaborations happen seamlessly and save costs too.

“Every cost vertical will now be reviewed closely,” says Singh. To illustrate, if an average employee is paid ₹50,000 a month, the cost to company will typically be more due to money spent on rental overheads (25 per cent upward), pick-and-drop facilities, access to a cafeteria, and a robust security system among other expenses. In the case of WFH, staff can be managed through a host of collaboration portals such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Google Zoom and others, making the need for a physical workspace redundant.

Owing to the Covid-19 crisis in mid-March, one of Singh’s clients, a legal services firm, was forced to cancel its team offsite — an outbound activity where team members gather to brainstorm and form professional bonds. Instead of flying in employees from various corners of the country to the Capital, for the first time they held the offsite online, using Microsoft Teams. Over 30 employees logged in from their respective bedrooms. Minus any technical glitches, they could hear one another, brainstorm productively and even manage a few laughs. Emboldened by the experience, they made the shift to WFH.

There were similar successes in other sectors, too. Staff in various print media outlets have, for the first time in many cases, pulled off entire editions working from home (including this edition of BLink).

Such online interfaces are nothing new for the 12-year-old healthcare portal Practo, which is a sort of Zomato for medical services. It not only shows one where to access health services but also patches a user to a doctor on call, video or text.

Practo’s team of one lakh certified doctors across India work remotely by interacting with patients through online consultations in a range of Indian languages. Worried about possible Covid-19 infection, people are wary of walking into a doctor’s chamber and prefer the safety of a virtual consultation, says Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, chief healthcare strategy officer of Practo. “Post the Covid-19 outbreak, we have seen a surge in tele-consultations. Our call volume has gone up by 60 per cent, to over 60,000 calls a month. Half of these calls concern the coronavirus,” Dr Kuruvilla says over the phone from Bengaluru.

But this uptick in remote workstyles is still a blip when one considers the larger economy. For starters, not everybody can work from home. India’s biggest recruiting industries such as retail, infrastructure, manufacturing and hospitality have taken a serious hit in business owing to the lockdown. It isn’t possible to build highways or manufacture cars from the comfort of your home.

At Gurugram-based Feedback Infrastructure, an integrated services company that builds large-scale government projects, the lockdown saw employees carrying home entire desktops to continue working on heavy design softwares that cannot be installed on laptops. But while the planning part continued unhindered to a certain extent, the company’s ongoing construction work and highway toll collections — a major source of revenue — have come to a grinding halt.

“The major worry for us is whether we will survive at all,” says RS Ramasubramaniam, co-founder of Feedback Infrastructure. Their highway construction design work requires field staff to collect revenue maps from local authorities to measure land. This cannot be done during the lockdown. Ramasubramaniam fears that companies that cannot work from home may be forced to lay off workers during the lockdown.

With construction work halted nationwide, the bulk of migrant labourers are out of jobs. “We know that over 80 per cent of the informal sector cannot work from home. In the formal sector, too, the bulk of the junior roles can’t contribute from home. Working from home is for elites,” says Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder and executive vice-president of HR consultancy TeamLease services, over the phone from Bengaluru.

Over the past week, companies across industries have been working hard to move job interviews to video calls. So, from executives for credit card companies, aadhaar enrolment officers to delivery boys for grocers and other e-sellers, much recruitment has taken place through WhatsApp video calls.

The past week has also brought home the practical challenges of WFH. Take sales and customer service, which form a chunk of human resources. Industry insiders believe that India simply doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to shift jobs home.

Voice process jobs, which entail customer service calls, cannot be done from home without the necessary diallers, LAN frameworks, large servers and data bandwidth. While corporate sales can possibly be sealed over chats on Google Hangouts, no such luck for the retail salespeople.

Not all homes have the network bandwidth to enable WFH, as many have realised over a patchy group video conference.

Then there’s data security concerns. Companies aren’t equipped with security tools to guard against the high risk of exposing classified data over a personal network.

“No doubt we’ve been forced to the challenge, but we don’t have all the answers yet. If we pull through this, a lot of things are going to change in terms of how we do business. A lot of hard-coded beliefs will get questioned,” Chakraborty says.

‘For the knowledge class only’

Manish Sabharwal   -  COURTESY: TEAMLEASE SERVICES

 

Manish Sabharwal, founder of HR consultancy TeamLease Services, which offers hiring and productivity services to over 3,500 employers, tells BLinkhow working from home is impacting performance management and work culture.

Are we at the cusp of seeing some fundamental changes in how we work remotely?

Our estimates suggest 50–60 per cent of graduates can work from home, but only 10 per cent of non-graduates can work from home. If you use your hands and legs, you can’t work from home. The creative class and knowledge class can. So it exposes a class divide.

When you’re working from home, the performance management becomes more obvious. Because of this crisis, maybe technology and new processes will get tested.

The employee who stays back the longest typically earns the most brownie points. Will we become more output-driven going forward?

It’s true for all bosses all over the world that work only happens in physical presence. It’s easy to measure productivity for people who use their hands and legs, it’s very hard to measure productivity for people who use their minds. One of the enduring management problems is measuring productivity of the creative class because it’s not linear — they might be thinking for a week and put the output out in two hours.

As an organisation you’ll have to start thinking of yourself as concentric circles — the core of permanent employees who come to office every day, some permanent employees who don’t come, then third-party contractors and freelancers. The notion that you have one circle and everyone is inside it, is breaking. This will accelerate the adoption of non-traditional supply chain by 10 years.

This will, no doubt, shift the terms of contract from long-term to a [task-based] taxi cab relationship. I think it will also accelerate the shift to thinking about work as hours spent to deliverable outputs. It will see people questioning whether they should be spending three hours commuting. In the last few years, economists have noticed that one of the key components of [workplace] happiness is lowered commute time.

This is a randomised control trial we’re running at a global level. The planet is taking a gap year, and that’s allowing us to accelerate this deconstruction of organisations, de-emphasising physical workspaces. It was happening anyway for the last 10 years, but it was viewed with suspicion by bosses.

What percentage of salaries goes into rental overheads? How will a company assess whether it needs a physical workspace?

In an industry such as investment banking, it’s 100 per cent. In BPO's, it’s 25 per cent. So the range is 25–100 per cent, layered on top of salary. The assessment can be made three-fold: Which are the people who end up being more productive from home and happier? Which guys are more unproductive at home or abusing the privilege? Which jobs can be done from home, because not all can.

Traditionally, the cheerleader for work-from-home has been HR, but suddenly you’ve also got line and finance [managers] contributing to the debate, because line says business continuity is maintained by working from home and finance says the 25–100 per cent overhead is not getting layered on... For the first time, the work-from-home debate is being cheerled by all three.

To be working from home for 10–20 per cent of the time may become the new normal for knowledge organisations. But it’s too premature to declare victory or defeat. I don’t think commercial real estate is going away.

In the 1950s, post World War II, The Organization Man by William H Whyte, the editor of Fortune magazine, was the go-to book to understand work culture of that period. It said you have to come to office, dress the same way, give your loyalty and be a man, in exchange for which you would get a pension. Now, for instance, 40 per cent of IBM employees don’t go to office every day and a third of them are women. The dilution of that kind of post-world war thinking has already happened substantially, but this [Covid-19 outbreak] will help it happen even more.

The family-and-work juggle

In March 2017, American political analyst Robert E Kelly shot to global fame when his interview to the BBC over a video call from home was videobombed by his four-year-old daughter, Marion, “hippity-hoppitying” into his study, closely followed by her baby brother wheeling in on his walker. Kelly, since more popular as the ‘BBC dad’, garnered 36 million views on YouTube for that interview, which ended with his wife sliding into the room, Spider-Man style, but with panic writ large over her face as she dragged the kids out.

Online recruitment: A three way interview on Whatsapp video chat between a recruiter, a client and a candidate for the position of an aadhaar enrolment officer   -  COURTESY: TEAMLEASE SERVICES

 

Today, countless families are cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and watching their kids and pets climb walls as they juggle home and work life, while the virus outbreak plays itself out. Suits and other formal wear have been discarded for the comfort of nighties and pyjamas. Bosses can often hear the cooker whistling in the kitchens and kids throwing temper tantrums in the background of a conference call. On a video call, the resident cat will suddenly decide to leap into the frame. The shock value of the BBC dad moment is thinning now.

What should we make of this new space that isn’t entirely home or office, that perennially wrestles with one another every moment of the day?

“I used to talk about how we didn’t have a work-life balance, how people took their work home, and how unhealthy it all was. Today, I’m giving the exact opposite advice,” says Delhi-based psychologist Samir Parikh. This is a timebound need of the hour, so we have to accept that there will be anxiety, frustration and boredom, he says. The simple advice he offers employees working from home is to maintain as close a work routine as possible to your office-going schedule. “Don’t make every day a Sunday. Then a certain dullness creeps in,” he says. So wake up early, preferably wear your work clothes when you sit down to work, break your day into parts (make room for a hobby and digital socialisation), don’t work longer than you did at office, and sleep on time.” We would be wise to learn from Navya.

A virtual team

“Our ability to adapt is always slow, unless people are willing. With the Covid-19 crisis, people are more than willing to embrace technology,” says Jay Kundani. He is a ‘consumption specialist’ at Mumbai-based Softline India, Microsoft’s India partner, whose key role is getting people to make the behavioural shift from a physical to a virtual workspace by getting on Microsoft Teams, part of the MS Office 365 suite. In the wake of Covid-19, the company’s sales jumped 110 per cent, skyrocketing its active users to 44 million worldwide. Last Sunday, Kundani helped activate 2,500 licences, ten times the usual number, in a single day.

Teams boasts of features to schedule instant meetings, share desktop screens, swiftly shift between voice and video, hold a continuous chat, create editable stickers and emoticons to maintain the informality of a workspace, and, importantly, create custom-made backgrounds and blur background video and noise to safeguard the privacy of those working out of home. It allows a 250-member team to collaborate at the same time; it can also transmit a webinar, an internet-based seminar, to 10,000 people, while allowing back-and-forth interactions with viewers.

In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, the company launched a six-month free subscription offer to users worldwide.

Shriya Mohan

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Published on March 27, 2020
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