Yuvika (name changed) spends about three hours commuting during peak traffic hours in Bengaluru. The 25-year-old senior software developer recently returned to her office at Manyata Tech Park after working from home in Kengeri, about 35 km away, for two years.
“For people like me who live with their families in houses that are far from their office locations, it is very difficult to relocate to a paying guest facility near the office,” Yuvika said. “I have no choice but to travel, which is both expensive and time-consuming.”
IBM, Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services, PayU, and startups, including Zeta and StayVista, have started opening up to varying degrees after two years of restrictions on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Once again, the lives of employees like Yuvika who had settled into a work-from-home mode are being disrupted.
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Diksha (name changed), an employee at a global multinational technology company, lived in Bengaluru with her husband and mother-in-law. During the pandemic, she shifted to her hometown and had a son, who is now a year old.
“For moving back to Bangalore, the biggest issue is childcare,” Diksha said. “For the past year, my son has had the habit of staying with us 24x7. It will be a big change for him and us alike.”
In her hometown, Diksha has a lot of family support. It is also where her son has stayed since he was born.
Many employees of such companies come from smaller towns. With the sudden shift to work from home in 2020, most of them moved to their hometowns to save on rent and be close to family. Now, with the pandemic appearing to be waning, it’s time to get back to the office. To help with the transition, many companies have provided time until June or July for physical attendance.
“We are working to make this a smooth transition,” said Priya Cherian, Chief People Officer of PayU, a payment service provider. “The months from March to May will be a transition period to help employees who have left the city in which the office was based and moved to their hometowns, plan and prepare for the hybrid model. Moreover, we are putting together additional resources to support our teams through this transition.”
IBM has a similar buffer period, although it maintains that the office location is mentioned in employment contracts and staffers are obligated to join when they are called back.
“IBM will not prescribe that our employees be in the office a certain number of days and at home a certain number of days,” said Thirukkumaran Nagarajan, head of human resources at IBM India/South Asia, without responding to a specific query on the contractual obligations. “Managers are designing what works best for their teams and client requirements.”
According to Nagarajan, even when employees come to the office, they spend only a few hours in meetings and work for a particular outcome. “There is no longer a scenario that anyone must come to the office just to do their everyday work,” he said.
Apart from the grace period to return to the office, a solution that has been discussed is to set up satellite offices in small towns. While this option will keep people closer to their families, satellite offices will also help reduce urban congestion and lower costs for companies.
IBM recently announced plans to expand into central India, Kochi, Ahmedabad, and suburbs of cities such as Hyderabad.
“We are now going where the talent pools of the country are… Having work locations beyond the metros will help us address growing client requirements as well as provide flexibility for our employees, in addition to gaining access to the talent and skillsets in these cities,” Nagarajan said.
Accenture, TCS, Infosys, and Wipro are reported to have earmarked funds or are planning to open offices in Jaipur, Coimbatore, Indore, Nagpur, and Visakhapatnam.
Zoho said in March last year it would open satellite offices, which seat 20 to 30 employees, in rural and non-urban areas. In September, Zoho said it plans to hire about 2,000 people for its rural offices by December end.
While opening satellite offices in the smaller towns might take some time, companies that are opening now are looking for ways to lure employees back.
Incentives to return
Amulya Nidhi recently joined Mumbai-based banking technology company Zeta as a people operations specialist. With his wife working in Pune, Nidhi operated from their house in the city until two months ago. On being called to work from the office, he moved to Mumbai, where his home is about 40 km from his work location. That’s a lot of commuting, both internally in Mumbai and back and forth from Pune.
“I genuinely think working from home is better for productivity,” Nidhi said. However, he also said neither extreme is good as employees need to interact and socialise and policymakers need to strike a balance between both.
“For the past couple of weeks, I went to the office and I'll be working from home for the next two weeks,” he said. “With the amount of commuting I need to do, the flexibility of the current hybrid policy is working best for me right now.”
Most companies offer a flexible hybrid work policy.
“Wipro has adopted a flexible, hybrid approach in our return-to-office policy,” the Bengaluru-based IT company said. “Since April 4, 2022, fully vaccinated employees have had the option to work from our India campuses, thrice a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”
It is crucial to see how long these companies provide such work flexibility.
Startups including Zeta are developing individual policies to help their employees, from providing monetary assistance in commuting by partnering with Ola to relocating within a city or from a different city.
“The company helps people with registered brokers, in payment of a deposit and setting up their house like providing basic furniture and so on,” Nidhi said.
Zeta has also opened up its canteen facility and three to four well-known restaurants have started counters there for employees.
“These are the developments of the past one and a half years since the restrictions have slowly started lifting,” Nidhi said.
After the disruption caused by the pandemic, work from home became the new routine for most employees over the past two years. Going back to the old routine could be equally unsettling.
Companies are trying to make the transition easy. Mumbai-based luxury villa rental platform StayVista called its employees to the office and allowed them to wear the clothes they generally wore while working from home. Employees showed up in pyjamas, shorts, and comfortable slippers.
“Other than being a great way to bond as a team, the concept helped raise awareness on how critical it is for all organisations to thoughtfully make a smooth transition back to the office,” StayVista said. “Team members have got used to certain aspects of WFH (work from home) and want it to continue. The workplace will also have to adapt to these preferences.”
StayVista has also been screening Indian Premier League cricket matches in the evening for teams to watch together. “We emphasise the importance of team productivity that the back-to-office environment promotes, as opposed to individual productivity which comes with working remotely,” the company added.
Suraj Moraje, Former Chief Executive Officer of QuessCorp, a leading staffing and managed outsourcing services provider, pitched in on why are companies going out of their way to bring employees back. He said, “In the last couple of years, with a huge spurt in technology and investment coming into various industries, we're seeing huge amounts of demand for certain skill sets.”
He believes that with people working from home and a series of lockdowns, we are seeing an unprecedented shortage of labour. He said, “With attrition going up and a spike in demand for talent, companies are soft-pedaling and trying to see how they can get people back rather than mandating them to come back.”
He argued that had there been a market where there was a shortage of jobs, we would have seen a very different dynamic.
Why bring employees back to the office?
“To build culture and aid productivity” – that’s the standard answer from most companies when asked why they want employees back in the office or the hybrid work model now that the world has adapted to working from home.
Another reason cited by a source is the lease that companies have to pay for office premises, which has become an unproductive fixed cost and affects their profit and loss accounts.
Moraje, an industry veteran, said, “It is difficult to get mentorship, build networks, and have unstructured, spontaneous conversations if you're not at the workplace.”
He believes that employees can work from home completely for a couple of years. However, if one’s job involves an innovation element to it, they will have to come back to the office to support the transformational aspects of their work.
Secondly, Moraje said that with remote working, companies are facing an issue with freshers who are struggling to fit into the work culture. He added, “I get a laptop and office goodies, with that I don’t know how I am supposed to understand what it means to work there.”
He believes this disconnection from the work culture is contributing to the surge in attrition and decline in loyalty to work.
While returning to the office might not be desirable for some, it’s not all bad either.
Some say a hybrid work model where they go to the office for a few days a week might help their mental health.
“During work from home, my routine became monotonous as I was living alone and I had nothing else to do,” said Neha Nupur, an employee of Wipro. “In an office environment, I have my colleagues around and have someone to talk to, share my thoughts, and discuss my problems. It helps me keep my mental health in check.”The conversations around work models are evolving and there are 101 approaches to the issue. However, it’s clear that there is a need to strike a balance between socialising and isolation. A hybrid work model can probably help employees achieve that.