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Companies see work-from-home as a viable long-term option if regulatory issues can be addressed

About two-thirds of the 4.3 mn ITBPO workforce across the country have moved to a work-from-home model.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Apr 05, 2020, 06.18 AM IST
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The way companies trained and managed the workforce will change but how will they handle sensitive client work remains to be seen.
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The lockdown announced by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus has forced employees to work from homes (WFH) for about three weeks now. This new normal might just become a standard practice, at least for some employees even after the Covid-19 situation is resolved.

About two-thirds of the 4.3 million ITBPO workforce across the country have moved to a work-from-home model to keep services uninterrupted during the lockdown. Experts say some companies are likely to move to WFH permanently.

Nasdaq-listed BPO and analytics firm EXL Service, which has about 70% of its 32,000 employees in India, expects some of its staffers to work from home on a long-term basis. Insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar.com also sees a similar trend. CEO Sarbvir Singh says, "The current situation has paved the way for a paradigm shift. It will allow us to distribute workforce across the country."

WFH will encourage more women to join the workforce as the hassles of travelling daily would disappear. "In the US, about 25% of the workforce works out of home," says Rohit Kapoor, vice-chairman & CEO of EXL Service. "In India, we will move to that kind of level over time. This option will also help women, especially mothers, a lot as it will make it easier for them to join the workforce."

Other big reasons why India Inc is seriously considering WFH as a new constant is because it involves cost savings, convenience and productivity gains, if implemented correctly. Outside Mumbai's central business districts, a barebones office space that can seat 500 people can cost `10 crore in annual rent, which is `2 lakh per employee. Then comes the cost of staff transportation, air-conditioning and ventilation, furnishing and cafeteria.

WFH will give companies more flexibility to move according to business needs. Employees could be compensated based on transactions. "The more productive someone is, more they will be compensated," adds Kapoor. The average cost of an employee in analytics & BPO companies is $24,000 in office, which could decline to $18,000-20,000 in WFH, reckons Kapoor. Singh of PolicyBazaar.com says, "WFH has worked brilliantly for our employees. We plan to make it functional for at least 20-30% of our staff once things normalise." The fully loaded cost for PolicyBazaar.com, which has 13,000 employees, tends to be around 1.25-1.5x of the employee's salary. This money can come down drastically if WFH is implemented.

Not all companies, however, are gungho about WFH. At least the heads of two of the largest technology services players in the country have flagged up an issue.

The CEO and MD of Tata Consultancy Services, Rajesh Gopinathan, highlighted the need to restrict WFH for those who support critical and confidential functions of global clients. On a LinkedIn post, he said: "We power financial backbones of several countries, support some of the largest healthcare and pharmacy companies in the world, run technology for governments and public services organisations." Infosys' CEO Salil Parekh also shared a similar concern, adding that "we continue to be guided by advisories from local governments in the 46 countries we operate in."

Apart from security and regulatory issues, WFH also has a human challenge.

The absence of water cooler conversations, impromptu meetings and cafeteria discussions with colleagues could impact productivity. "We want to make sure we don't lose the human touch," says Manish Dalal, managing director, Asia Pacific, Endurance International Group, a web hosting company. "People need to meet to brainstorm. How do I create virtual mentoring sessions and imbibe company culture among people who are at home?" A way out is to have employees come to office a few times every, say, fortnight. At Endurance, 700 employees are working from home at present.
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There could be challenges on the home front also. Many employees may not have a spare room at home for longterm WFH. Or, millennials living in paying guest-type accommodations may not have the space or freedom to install the required infrastructure, such as a broadband line or a power back-up system.

Work from home hasn't evolved much in India, says Neetish Sarda, founder of co-working company Smartworks. "There isn't a dedicated space at home where one can work, and internet or power glitches can lead to loss of productivity." For many companies, especially in the outsourcing segment, work often happens at odd hours. Making a suitable arrangement for this could also be a problem.

Delivery Value from Home More complications will arise in the absence of clear WFH guidelines, says Raman Roy, CMD of Quatrro Global Services. "Electricity companies might charge commercial rates for residences where office work is going on. Telecom permissions will be needed for better connectivity."

The way companies trained and managed the workforce will change but how will they handle sensitive client work remains to be seen. "Many offices don't allow smartphones at employee desks during work hours. How do you control that at home?" Roy sees demand for masking software (which blanks out information such as address of a customer) and other such products going up. Atul Shinghal, founder and CEO of fintech startup Scripbox, says the Covid-19 situation has made companies more accustomed to remote working.

"But it is early days. A complete evaluation of the pros and cons of remote working is needed." One key advantage Shinghal sees is "the learnings we, as an organisation, are getting of our resilience and capabilities to continue to deliver value while working remotely and keeping everyone safe." That will be another big driver to get people to work from the comfort of their homes.
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