A year is clearly a long time in business. Back in 2021, when it was starting to look like the world was finally getting a handle on the Covid pandemic and light started shimmering at the end of the tunnel, it was all about embracing the learnings from Covid and how the future of work was here — and hybrid.

The findings of ‘The Indian Workplace Survey 2021’, carried out by architecture and design consultancy Gensler, were fairly typical for the time. Carried out in the summer of 2021, the survey found that a whopping 86 per cent of senior leadership reported that their own personal productivity, as well as that of their teams, had improved thanks to hybrid and remote work.

Respondents at a level a notch lower — at the manager level, meaning they were the ones who were actually monitoring teams and responsible for delivering productivity — were a tad less optimistic. But only a little, with 77 per cent of respondents at this level reporting improved personal productivity and 73 per cent reporting improved team productivity.

At that time, the hybrid work model — combining office and remote work — was widely seen as the way organisations will continue to work even after all Covid-related restrictions were lifted.

Hybrid work model

The findings of apex IT industry body Nasscom’s ‘Return to workplace’ survey (revealingly subtitled ‘evolving towards hybrid operating model’) conducted towards the end of 2021, were fairly typical. Seventy per cent of employers surveyed said they were looking at continuing with a hybrid work model post pandemic, climbing to over 80 per cent among larger organisations employing more than 1,000 persons.

And a majority cited increased employee productivity and greater employee satisfaction (thanks to a better work-life balance) as the key reasons for doing so.

A survey by video conferencing solutions provider Poly reported that 86 per cent of respondents in India reported greater productivity from a hybrid model — far higher than the global average of 70 per cent.

Cut to the present and the picture appears to have changed dramatically. According to Microsoft’s ‘2022 Work Trend Index Pulse Report’, which was released last week, an overwhelming majority — 93 per cent — of employees in India felt that they were productive in a hybrid work environment. But an equally large percentage of respondents in leadership roles — 91 per cent to be precise — felt that the shift to hybrid work “has made it challenging to have confidence in employees being productive.”

In fact, just 12 per cent of Indian business leaders said they had “full confidence” that their teams continued to be productive in a hybrid workplace.

The survey findings expose a staggering trust deficit between top leadership and their workforce. Calling out on business leaders on their “productivity paranoia”, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella warned that increased surveillance of remote workers is not the solution. “Thriving employees are what will give organisations a competitive advantage in today’s dynamic economic environment,” Nadella said, while announcing a series of measures in Microsoft to help managers “re-energise, retain and recruit” staff.

It is a moot point whether Indian managers will listen though. Take the other hot button issue in India Inc at the moment — moonlighting. Here too, there is a big difference between how top management and the foot soldiers, particularly young millennial and GenZ workers, view the issue.

Rishad Premji of Wipro may have been the first top honcho to actually come out and call moonlighting unethical and dishonest — but it is clear that a majority of his colleagues in C-Suites agree, even if they officially hem and haw on the side of political correctness A view clearly not shared by the 300 employees Wipro sacked for the offence, or the tens of hundreds of tech workers who are busy moonlighting at the moment.

At the heart of this singular disconnect — it’s more than just a workers-versus-management issue or age-versus-youth — is the way Indians work. Indian managements tend to be very hierarchical and structured, with managers tending to favour a top-down style of functioning.

In most ‘Indian’ corporates, there is a strong emphasis on hierarchy, which creates a mismatch between freedom of decision-making and accountability for outcomes. There is a tendency to favour direct (and verbal) communication over standardised operating practices and protocols.

There is also the emphasis on personal relationships in Indian workplaces, which inherently goes against a remote/hybrid work culture where opportunities for building such relationships are available less often.

This is not to say that productivity is not an issue in India. GDP per hour worked, often used as a measure of labour productivity, was (2019 data) over $70 per hour in the US and just $8.68 in India. Of course, that doesn’t reflect the true state of affairs, since there is an argument for measuring output as a factor of wages paid, where India outscores the US and is only slightly behind China.

Key learnings

Nevertheless, the findings point to some important learnings for senior Indian managers. One is that while their personal work culture and expectations may have been built on their own past experiences, GenZ and millennial workers in India have a totally different view of work and the importance of work in their lives.

This is why there has been such stiff resistance to the idea of returning to office to work, particularly from younger workers who have gotten used to the digital nomad existence.

Unless they internalise this ‘new normal’ — rather than merely pay lip service to it — the gulf between the managers and the managed is only likely to widen.

The writer is a senior journalist