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Engaged in a tussle with emboldened employees who have tasted flexibility, organisations need to soul search and crack their hybrid model code as they craft their return-to-office plans

By: Vidya S.
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Sometimes, Getting into something may be easier than getting out of it. Just ask the HR professionals witnessing up close employees’ return to office under hybrid work as companies roll back pandemic-led work-from-home benefits. If moving tens of thousands of employees into remote work overnight at the pandemic’s outset was a challenge, bringing them back to office under a hybrid model suitable to both employers and employees at a time of record-high attrition levels is proving to be a bigger one.

“Today, the heated job market is not helping the cause of bringing people back to office. The ability of organisations to take hard calls is not there,” says talent solutions provider Careernet’s CEO & Co-founder Anshuman Das, adding that companies are definitely facing resistance from at least a few employees when told to return to office. Agreeing, another senior HR professional who requested anonymity, says: “Employees are saying, ‘You don’t decide my life, I decide it’. Many of them who have moved back to smaller towns are asking if they need this particular job to cover their expenses.”

Today, the heated job market is not helping the cause of bringing people back to office. The ability of organisations to take hard calls is not there.

Anshuman Das
CEO & Co-founder
Careernet

With vaccination gathering pace, the Omicron wave proving to be mild and India Inc. becoming more confident of managing the virus better, employers’ collective chants have also changed from ‘the future of work is remote’ to ‘the future of work is hybrid’ to ‘one size does not fit all’. Yet to crack a hybrid model that works for them, several companies have been gearing up for more in-office work under a hybrid mode, with specifics varying across industries, management styles and roles. 

Employees are back mostly in banking, financial services and even in IT and start-ups, which were expected to lead the hybrid-work pack given their digital quotient, Das says. “The return of employees to physical offices and workplaces is yet to gain the sense of normalcy that was once present. We are still witnessing low occupancy rates. But as things are picking up pace, we are seeing several organisations resume their ‘work from office’ practice,” says Sreelakshmi Venugopal, Head of HR at Embassy Services, which runs facility management services for large business parks in the country.

Sunjoy Dhaawan, VP of Human Resources at DHL Express (India) agrees that the company’s management has debated the topic several times. “People can turn back to us and say, ‘Look, in the last two years I’ve worked very efficiently sitting at home and my work hasn’t suffered. So why do I need to come to office?’.” Their justification is that the office space becomes necessary for newcomers at least to get a sense of the company culture. But he adds that they haven’t had any requests for fully remote work, possibly because they allow employees 10 days of work from home in a month.

Other leading employers also say they haven’t received many employee requests to continue working from home. “Our experience has been that a majority of employees are able to manage these situations as long as they have the flexibility to manage their work. They actually look forward to being in office two to three days a week,” says Tata Consumer Products (TCP) Global CHRO Amit Chincholikar. “We are encouraging all our colleagues to join us in the office/work the market for at least three days a week and have received good response,” says an HUL spokesperson, adding that people with exceptional circumstances can discuss work options with their line managers. Adds S.V. Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India: “Our experiences and response will evolve as we have just started hybrid working in March.”

We are encouraging all our colleagues to join us in the office/work the market for at least three days a week and have received good response.

Amit Chincholikar
Global CHRO
Tata Consumer Products (TCP)

To be sure, many employees are glad to be back in office. At least there’s a clear end to the day, reason some. Others are not ready to suffer the boredom and digital exhaustion of working from home anymore. But there are also many who don’t want to return. Consider this: Naukri.com added a feature in July 2021 for recruiters to tag their job postings as ‘Permanent Remote’ or ‘Temporary Work from Home During Covid’. According to the job portal’s findings released in February 2021, over 93,000 permanent and temporary remote jobs were listed. Indian job seekers made over 3.2 million searches for permanent and temporary remote jobs. About 57 per cent were made for permanent remote jobs during the same time, with the highest search count of over 350,000 in December 2021 alone.

But it’s not just the fear of the virus holding people back anymore, going by the crowds at the malls, theatres and restaurants. Tech giant Google’s Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports map community movement in India and other countries during the pandemic (February 17, 2020 to March 3, 2022) using data from users who have turned on their location history. From mid-June 2020 to mid-October 2021, the trend graph for community movement in India to retail and recreation spots dipped the lowest from the baseline, while the movement to workplaces stayed well above it, meaning that people went out more to workplaces than to places like restaurants and shopping centres. But the trend reversed during mid-October to December 2021, when movement to retail and recreation spots overtook the movement to workplaces. Going to the workplace may be a response to official mandates, but visits to recreational spots are completely voluntary, indicating a greater level of confidence among people to step out. It may just be a question of convenience as well, with several employees blaming time-consuming commute for not wanting to return.

“A small minority of employees has referenced time spent in commute as well as the nature of their roles—being such that they can be delivered remotely—as reasons to not come back to office,” says TCP’s Chincholikar. He adds that most requests are not so much around working from their home town but about flexibility in schedules. Deloitte’s Nathan also mentions commute timings and the effort and costs involved in relocation from home towns as key concerns employees have about returning to office. Careernet’s Das says his firm surveyed 2,000 employees and found a 50-50 split of those wanting to return to work and those who don’t. Among those who don’t, time and money saved on travel and stay were prominent reasons, he says. “And they are okay to work from 9 am to 9 pm with small breaks in between to attend to their life, which they can’t do while at office full time.”

Take the case of communications professional Mohammed Sulaiman, who is currently living with his family in Chennai. He has to report back at work in Bengaluru for two days a week. Wary of Bengaluru’s infamous traffic and mindful of the rent he will have to shell out, he plans to test the waters by shunting between the two cities every week for a month until he works out a good arrangement. “Compared to the previous times, the company is a lot more serious this time about returning to work and there have been multiple follow-ups about returning to work.”

Employers, on their part, say they find a lot of value in bringing employees back, despite remote work not affecting productivity. It’s not about the productivity, says Deepti Varma, Director-HR for Amazon in APAC and Middle East. “But it is important for us to continue to invest in culture, help the person learn the Amazon way of doing things, and enable social interactions among the teams so that the person feels more belonged at Amazon.” The company, which topped this year’s BT-Taggd Best Companies to Work For in India survey, allows team leaders to decide how many days employees need to work from office or home.

It is important for us to continue to invest in culture, help the person learn the Amazon way of doing things, and enable social interactions among the teams so that the person feels more belonged at Amazon.

Deepti Varma
Director-HR
Amazon in APAC

“If we are going to hire thousands of people and if all of them are just small boxes on a screen, then how are we going to build a connect?” asks HDFC Bank CHRO Vinay Razdan, adding that the lender has not issued a formal diktat to all employees to return. Periodic gathering is required, but within that there is enough flexibility to offer remote working to people, he says. But the reasons also extend to other factors like office space usage and better employee control, adds the senior HR professional who requested anonymity. “Not everybody has given up office space. So, what do you with an empty office? Besides, if you are at work and I’ve lost your mindshare, I can work on counselling, retention, and a lot of things. When you are not on my premises, I have to keep wondering if that sense of belonging is there.”

Be that as it may, the fact is that employees may not have much choice if companies require them to return to office as long as the state and central governments’ rules don’t prohibit them from doing so. “In such a situation, employees cannot rightfully refuse to return to office if so mandated by their employer,” says Rashmi Pradeep, Partner at legal firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. The general opening up of the economy and lifting of restrictions also means that employers can take disciplinary action against employees who refuse to return and the employees would be left with limited legal recourse, she adds.

The movement of talent to smaller cities necessitates taking infrastructure load off the metros and strengthening capacities in non-metros. Connectivity can be a challenge and the internet fluctuates in smaller towns. We need more initiatives such as the proposed IT Ministry-Nasscom project to develop 100 smaller cities from where employees can work remotely to achieve this.

SAMEER RAJE
General Manager & Head
Zoom Video Communications

Naturally, there is no clear hybrid model winner yet, but the bigger companies will be the bellwethers, Das says. “The likes of TCS, Wipro, Google, Microsoft, HSBC and Goldman Sachs will have to take a call and say, ‘This is what my working model is going to be’, and a lot of the industry is going to follow that.” Meanwhile, companies will have to work out several finer details. General Manager & Head (India & SAARC) of Zoom Video Communications, Sameer Raje, says the movement of talent to smaller cities necessitates taking infrastructure load off the metros and strengthening capacities in non-metros. “Connectivity can be a challenge and the internet fluctuates in smaller towns.” Referring to a proposed IT ministry-Nasscom project to develop 100 smaller cities from where employees can work remotely, he says more such initiatives will be needed.

Pradeep says employment contracts are also being tweaked to clarify when employees are required to work from office and when they can work from home, to include force majeure clauses as well as to specify the appropriate conduct in remote and flexible working. Linking pay to location is another topic of discussion among employers. But Deloitte India’s Partner (Consulting) Anandorup Ghose doubts companies will implement it. “But they will have to figure out how performance management and cultural issues can be addressed for a hybrid workforce,” he says.

If we are going to hire thousands of people and if all of them are just small boxes on a screen, then how are we going to build a connect?

Vinay Razdan
CHRO
HDFC Bank

The general consensus is that the next four to six months will be all about experimenting and discovering what works for a specific organisation and its employees, with 2023 ushering in a stable and static new normal of working, provided there are no further serious disruptions. The senior HR professional who chose to stay anonymous adds that employees also need six to seven months to unwind after two stressful years, before they can return to normalcy. Careernet’s Das likens the process to trying to build a bridge over a moving road. “That whole discovery and seeing the future road ahead is the bigger problem today. Once you see the road ahead, putting up the guardrails to that era is not a problem.”

With the risks of employees losing their advantage when the job market cools off at some point as well as employers driving away good talent with their unhelpful policies, the time is ripe for both sides to get to the negotiation table for a heart-to-heart on how they envision hybrid work.

Credits
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Story: Vidya S.
Producers: Arnav Das Sharma
Creative Producers: Raj Verma, Nilanjan Das
Videos: Mohsin Shaikh
UI Developers: Pankaj Negi, Harmeet Singh