Concept of space has undergone sea change due to pandemic: John M Thomas, CEO, Kerala IT Parks

Vinson Kurian Thiruvananthapuram | Updated on June 29, 2021

John M Thomas, CEO, Kerala IT Parks

"We would respond as companies evolve strategies"

Kerala has focused on a holistic approach to IT development, focusing on integrated infrastructure development involving live-work-play spaces, multi-modal transportation and quality lifestyle amenities surrounding its IT corridors.

The State government-promoted IT parks are mixed-use developments with allied facilities, including hotels, serviced apartments and residential units for working professionals, and retail and entertainment facilities.

The Kerala IT Parks system offers a combination of Government-owned IT buildings (SEZ and non-SEZ) and those developed by reputed co-developers. The largest parks are Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram, and Infopark, Kochi.

The system is spread across nearly 1,000 acres, with 900+ IT/ITeS companies operating from a total built-up space touching 20 million sq ft. This apart, at least 12 million sq ft of high-end IT spaces (both SEZ and non-SEZ) and supporting infrastructure are at various stages of development in a PPP model.

The proposed semi high-speed rail corridor (Silverline) will connect Technopark with Infopark in 90 minutes. A Silverline station is planned inside Infopark. The Kochi Metro is also being extended to Infopark, while the Koratty Infopark has proximity to Cochin International Airport.

John M Thomas, the CEO, Kerala IT Parks, talked to BusinessLine about the implications to the system as the Covid-19 pandemic brings about a new normal illustrated best by the work-from-home (WFH) model. Excerpts from the interview:

The need for sprawling physical office spaces is not felt anymore. What will become of the concept of IT Parks and, by extension, the huge assets built up?

While Covid-19 has made WFH more acceptable and is a proven model, what we see now is a temporary phenomenon. As far as the companies are concerned, it will be a combination of space strategies going forward. Most companies (70 to 80 per cent) will operate in a hybrid mode (office and WFH). A small set can be expected to be at the two ends of the spectrum, i.e. pure WFH and completely on-premise/in office.

The model adopted will depend on factors such as the companies’ work culture and the nature of their work. BPO companies generally don’t allow employees to work from home. Some cannot opt for WFH due to compliance, privacy or information security reasons. Some others find it risky to allow access to their network from outside. For privacy and security reasons, yet others cannot allow WFH. So we are not expecting a huge decline in demand but are seeing a healthy organic growth pattern. If we take the case of occupancy in Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram, there is no vacant space. There may have been a surrender of space in the recent past, but several others are in the queue.

Does a strategy to have specific days for meetings and collaboration and other days for remote work help?

Strategies will be company-specific. Certain companies may adopt such models, but this cannot be generalised. Meetings and collaboration are always crucial in the IT industry, and our workspaces are conducive for the same. In the changed scenario, companies can adopt new workplace strategies and there would be changes in collaboration and teamwork. New concepts of workspace separation may emerge due to the social distancing norms.

The concept of space has undergone a sea change due to the pandemic, reflecting in conference rooms and collaboration spaces. The extent of these changes can only be measured once the workforce comes back to the IT Parks. Companies will form strategies after consulting with their workforce. As the process evolves, we would also respond to that as a space provider. We will be very watchful of this because of the evolving workspace design. This will bring demand-driven changes to workplaces, and Kerala IT parks will be quick to adapt.

Will the hybrid model stay the course? Does preference to work completed rather than hours worked to make a difference here?

The hybrid model is here to stay, and this offers increased flexibility, as you suggested. How companies take advantage of these trends will vary by company and nature of business. Hybrid models may lead to workforce expansion as well. There may have been new mothers who could not be part of the workforce before. This is a segment that we believe will benefit from work from home. The paradigm shift and preferences will be company- and work culture-specific. Some companies with high touch processes or real-time customer interactions may need employees to be in front of the desk at a specific time. Some others may be more focused on outcomes rather than hours. In general, I feel the IT industry has been very good in providing flexibility to employees, wherever possible.

Skills gaps have widened in the wake of the pandemic, and increased automation demands a lot of retraining and skill upgrade. What does this mean for you?

Kerala is much ahead in this regard and doing a lot. There are so many government-sponsored technical training initiatives and high-end academic institutions such as Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council (KDISC), the Kerala Digital University and the ICT Academy to bridge the skill gap of the IT workforce. We have a bunch of formal and informal retraining and upskilling programmes. When institutes such as the Digital University provide formal degree, and masters courses, the ICT Academy and others in the same category focus more on certification-oriented programmes in high-end technologies that the market demands.

We have a solid ecosystem to address the skill gap of fresh graduates, mid-career professionals and those who want to make a comeback after a career break. Notably, we have a decent understanding of where the skill gaps are. IT Parks and ICT Academy are in constant consultation with IT companies, and through this dialogue, we recognise gaps and design upskilling programmes as per industry requirements. Kerala is doing well here. Upskilling is inevitable in IT, which is a constantly evolving industry.

The State government has also taken proactive steps to ensure workforce readiness and availability. Some of the significant education/skill initiatives include certification programmes in emerging tech areas such as AI, Big Data, IoT, Blockchain and AR/VR for both recent engineering grads and mid-career professionals. Another noteworthy initiative is the special programmes for women professionals who want to upskill or return to work after a break for family reasons.

Do you think HR technology has caught up with the new normal?

I think we are pretty good at it now. Throughout the pandemic, companies had been recruiting, onboarding and training employees virtually and safely. Companies have upgraded their digital presence in both HR and Admin areas to support the virtual workforce. They are very well caught up on this front. E-learning and e-onboarding have become the norm.

There are growing concerns around how data is accessed remotely and how secure it can get. How should IT parks measure up here?

There are various dimensions to the concept of cybersecurity. The first, of course, is physical security, where the parks play a major role. We have security cover of the State Industrial Security Force and a protected boundary, surveillance cameras set up at all the key points and a centralised command centre. Authorisation, authentication and access to the cloud/network come under the companies’ domain and are out of the purview of the IT Parks. At the same time, physical security may become a major reason for companies to return to IT Parks post-pandemic.

A reverse migration of IT professionals is happening in Kerala. What is in store for them?

Covid-19 has brought tens of thousands of expatriate IT professionals from all over the world back to Kerala. Many of them are considering making this a permanent move. This, along with the existing two lakh-strong IT talent in the state, offers a significant local talent pool for companies looking to set up centres in Kerala.

Kerala’s IT workforce is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Many IT professionals who relocated from other states to Kerala enjoy the lifestyle amenities that Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode offer. These include the immense potential for weekend getaways to unwind, lower cost of living compared to metros (especially rents that are cheaper by more than 50 per cent), social infrastructure including malls/entertainment centres/parks and world-class healthcare and education institutions.

Published on June 29, 2021

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