Covid-19 was a cataclysmic event that changed our lives in ways only starting to be counted. In the corporate world, we were suddenly presented with a brand new acronym — WFH. Commentators and analysts excitedly pronounced that WFH or Work From Home would be the future of work. Out with sprawling workplaces; in with services like Zoom and Microsoft Tools which they insisted would enable us to keep in touch with bosses, colleagues, and even clients.

Covid-19 is still with us but the dread it generated has subsided considerably. And suddenly companies and bosses are changing their minds and saying, yes, they would like their teams gathered together within intercom or hailing distance. And no, sprawling offices haven’t quite outlived their utility.

To be sure the corporate world is in a state of unruly flux. Nobody really knows what will emerge in the next one-to-five years, notes one HR consultant. So, they’re ad-libbing and coming up with solutions that might be reversed as soon as later in the week. “You’ll keep seeing these flip-flops because there’s complete uncertainty on what should we do,” says the HR consultant.

Take a look at the IT industry, which loudly proclaimed WFH had worked so well they weren’t in a hurry to order employees back to work. Now TCS has sent out signals it’ll likely insist on many employees returning to work by November. Other IT companies are said to be thinking about issuing similar orders.

Let’s be clear. The tech companies now have an overwhelming influence on the entire Indian corporate world. After all, almost 40 per cent of new office space goes to these IT/ITeS companies. So if they give the green signal to WFH, then employees in other, older sectors are bound to demand similar treatment.

Over the last year, the IT/ITeS companies have been forced onto the backfoot  vis-à-vis their employees. Soaring global demand for Indian IT company services triggered a mammoth hiring spree. The much-in-demand employees were on a roll with generous salary hikes and other demands met instantly.

Now there’s a twist in the tale. The global economic slowdown has slammed the brakes on all tech companies and the race to hire talent has stalled. It’s hardly surprising tech companies are suddenly taking a tougher stand and demanding their employees return to the sprawling campuses created over the years.

Why second thoughts?

To be sure, the tech companies have good reasons for having second thoughts about WFH. TCS says it had hired around 100,000 people last year, many of them remotely who’d never been near their office. The reverse blast came when 25,000 left without ever stepping foot inside a TCS office. TCS’ chief operating officer N Ganapathy Subramaniam told a seminar: “I feel sad. I am sure if they’d been in face-to-face interaction, they would have valued TCS a lot better than working remotely.”

Wipro’s Rishad Premji pointed to a different unanticipated problem that came with WFH: moonlighting employees supplementing incomes by doing more than one job. Premji junior tweeted: “There is a lot of chatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating — plain and simple.”

Will tech companies all eventually require their employees to return to work full-time or at least part-time? One signal came from Infosys which, in May, leased 5 lakh sq ft of office space for around ₹2.3 crore per month. On an entirely different level, most start-ups insist on having all their employees in office.

In other industries, CEOs aren’t particularly worried about moonlighting. But they insist staying away from office means the Watercooler Effect is totally lost. Yes, hanging around the water-cooler or coffee-machine is a much more crucial part of office life than we ever thought. It’s vital to bounce ideas off each other. Says Harsh Goenka, Chairman, RPG Group: “You have to spark off ideas by talking about things. All that water-cooler talk is so important to create an awareness sense.” He adds, with WFH: “There’s no connect with people. There’s no innovation happening.”

Obviously, it’s not about all-or-nothing solutions. Most firms are now talking about introducing hybrid working where some level of WFH will become the norm. In the UK, a four-day working week trial began in January with 3,300 employees at 70 companies participating.

However, it should be added nobody is very clear about what hybrid working will involve. Will it be about a three-day or four-day working week? Or will it involve coming to office only for meetings or on demand? Says Amit Ramani, founder and CEO, Awfis Working Solutions: “I don’t know how it will play out. My sense is ultimately most companies will bring people back to office.”

Co-working spaces have, of course, emerged strongly in the last few years. Such offices in different parts of top cities can help employees cut commuting time. For many companies this will be one solution and the co-working companies have been expanding at a furious pace, both in big cities and in tier-2 cities.

Different paths

Many companies are going in a different direction. Corporate training company NIIT Ltd is renovating its offices to give them an entirely different look. In will come a large ‘dining table’ area with collaborative spaces along the sides. NIIT expects only a part of its team to be in office on any given day and it hopes to turn the office into a space that employees will be glad to get away to and a change from the dullness of working from home.

WFH is tougher for older companies in sectors like automobiles or tyres. In recent months, such companies have been forced to follow the lead taken by the tech companies but now they’re working out their own style of functioning for the future.

At Ceat, individual bosses have been left to decide who needs to turn up in office and how often. Says Goenka: “You talk to your boss. If your boss decides you can work from home for the next two months, I’m okay. If your boss decides you’d better come for the next 15 days, you’d better come. Though we try to get the boss to be reasonable and understanding.”

But Goenka warns: “If you don’t want a great career, then WFH is fine. If you have burning ambition, you can’t get away from interacting with people.”

Don’t forget companies can also benefit from WFH. They can save on expensive office space and also electricity bills.

All this could change at a moment’s notice. The ultimate message is ‘watch this space’ The only reliable forecast for the future is: expect plenty of ferment and change.