The nationwide lockdown triggered by the spread of the novel coronavirus has been extended until May 18 and entrepreneurs, the original hustlers, have had to make plenty of changes to their daily routine to adapt to working from home (WFH). Their daily schedules have been disrupted and their long drawn out usual meetings have been replaced by video calls. Not to mention the stress of a looming economic slowdown and pressure from investors.
Moneycontrol looks at how a scrum of business leaders is dealing with these fast-changing times. In today’s edition of Virtual Leaders, Rakesh Khar spoke to Pallavi Shroff, Managing Partner of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, one of the largest law firms in India.
You can read other editions of Virtual Leaders here.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: It has been 50-plus days now of lockdown-enforced work from home. How has the experience been?
A. It has been a very good experience though it took a few days to get accustomed to working from home. We have always been very sensitive to ensuring the safety of our people and had advised them to work from home, much before the government imposing the lockdown.
Work from home has meant an increased reliance on the use of technology, whether it is conducting internal team meetings or any discussions with clients. Even courts are working through the virtual mode, so the change has been all-pervasive. However, as lawyers, we are used to referring to textbooks for research and reviewing long drafts in physical form and that does create a slight challenge. However, it is not a challenge that is insurmountable. I see a huge potential for investing in virtual libraries that are easily accessible from anywhere and will also make a strong case for posterity.
Q: Has the productivity been adversely impacted or it is business as usual?
I would say that productivity has improved, owing to much more effective use of time and technology. No doubt working from home requires a lot of discipline and grit. However, people have learnt to be efficient and technology savvy. For me, there have been fewer distractions at home and I do now have access to additional time to work, time that was earlier spent travelling to work or other meetings. Of course, it has made us adapt to a certain different routine of working from home, but in a thoroughly positive and productive manner. The one drawback though is not meeting people. Social interaction is good for all of us. Issues arising out of lack of social interaction have to be dealt with and we at the firm have taken several steps in that direction.
Q: How has been the adoption of technology for you and the team in terms of being efficient working from home?
A. Our consistent focus and prior investment on enhancing our IT systems and processes have worked well for us. It has ensured that we were able to settle down to working from home without much disruption. Our IT team and COVID response team led by our Partner, Shweta Shroff Chopra, collaborated efficiently to ensure that our people were well prepared to work from home. Across the firm, our people work using Citrix, a digital workspace platform, on their machines. That provides our people with the flexibility to work from just about anywhere they have access to the internet, while for meetings we use Microsoft teams, amongst other technological tools. The fact that we have been using virtual digital platforms for long meant our people always had a high degree of comfort level in using technology for work.
Q: They say the virus is here to stay. What scope do you see for work-from-home proposition going forward for your business vertical?
A. Considering the swiftness with which we enabled our people to work from home, much before the lockdown without any disruption whatsoever, leads me to believe that we can continue to work from home for as long as the situation requires us to. We have realised that even clients are comfortable operating virtually and in fact, appreciate this kind of responsible and mature approach which ensures safety for all employees and their families, while maintaining a concentrated focus on delivering high-quality work. Working from home is here to stay in some form or the other even for the future. Each organisation will evolve a system that works for them.
Q: How does the India story look like in COVID times from the perspective of your clients, especially global ones?
A. The pandemic has definitely impacted the economy, not just in India, but across the world in a majority of countries. Having said that, I believe the Indian government, as evident from the announcements made by the finance minister over the past few days, is taking many positive steps that will help drive economic growth. The growth will slow down but it is likely to pick up only in the last quarter of this financial year owing to these initiatives from the government.
As far as global clients are concerned, I believe the investor appetite remains unchanged. We are witnessing deals happening but at a slower pace. Investors are waiting and watching. The investors are seeing a clear scope for better valuations delivering effective returns for them. As it is not a normal scenario, there are certainly few apprehensions that businesses now appear to be absorbing, and have a greater awareness and acceptance of how this is going to play out over the medium to longer term.
Q: Has the lockdown given you an opportunity to spend more time with your friends and family?
A. I have been as busy as ever, maintaining a full schedule and the same remains the case for my husband, Shardul and daughter, Natashaa. The lockdown hasn’t had much impact on our work schedules, not leaving much time other than what we spend with each other, as usual. The one thing I do miss, because of the restrictions from the lockdown, is not being able to meet my mother who stays in Gurgaon and my grandchildren who live in central Delhi.
Q: Do you miss the pre-COVID pushing schedules, travel, physical meetings and one-on-one face-to-face interactions?
The current environment is unchartered territory for most of us that we had to adapt to, and we have done quite well on in that regard. I don’t miss the aspects you mentioned all that much as I am quite comfortable working from home. We remain connected with our people and clients as closely as ever, owing to technology. My mind is solely focused on addressing various issues that might emerge and discovering new possibilities in this changing environment while continuing our focus on delivering high-quality work for all our clients. At the same time, we do hope that we will be able to return soon to work more conventionally.
Q: Every crisis has thrown open an opportunity? What are the lessons in leadership that COVID has taught you?
A. I believe it’s more often than not, a test of your ability to be agile while embracing and adapting to change and taking decisive action. Also, in this age of digitisation, I have never lost sight of the fact that technology is a big enabler and a game-changer. The third and most critical aspect clearly is our focus on putting our people first. We understand and empathise with the fact that the pandemic can affect individuals in different ways the potential uncertainty of the moment, coupled with remote working while caring for families can lead to challenges. So, the many initiatives we have taken over the past many weeks are guided by the need to ensure our people feel comfortable and cared for. When that happens, it empowers them to do their best. These diverse aspects have been fundamental to our success and this pandemic has only proven how effective and crucial these continue to be.