Concerns around the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and an upcoming holiday season have forced organisations to take their foot off the return-to-office plans they had begun rolling out within a hybrid format, especially after Diwali.
Indian companies, much like those abroad, have been going back and forth on their office reopening plans due to a fast-mutating virus and a workforce reluctant to return after having become used to some of the flexibility working from home (WFH) offers.
“Since the surge of infections did not happen the way it was anticipated after Diwali, most organisations were getting aggressive with their return-to-work policies. Now, they have given themselves more time to think about calling employees back,” said Rajul Mathur, Consulting Leader India, Talent and Rewards at global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson.
CIEL HR Services director and CEO, Aditya Mishra agrees that firms are now in wait-and-watch mode, though many had earlier told employees to return to their base locations even in hybrid work. “Some had set January deadlines. But companies aren’t pushing for it anymore and have left it open-ended that it is hybrid work. They may change their guidelines in 2-3 weeks.” Most major cities have been witnessing choc-a-bloc traffic during peak hours with almost 50-60% of the country’s white-collar workforce being back in offices at least for a few days of the week, he said.
“With over one-and-a-half years of remote working, many of our associates have been eagerly waiting for our offices to reopen, as WFH fatigue is impacting their physical and emotional state. We were deliberating on a phased approach to restart operations in the office, but the new variant has put us on an alert. We will be watching the developments closely,” said Prema Rajaraman, Chief People Officer, Nucleus Software Exports.
To be sure, several firms are continuing with their in-office operations, too, confident of being able to switch quickly to remote work if the need arises. For instance, construction firm buildAhome’s team returned to office 4-5 months ago and CEO Abhijith R Priyan told Business Today that they are continuing to work from office. “No changes at least till we have more information or directives from the government. In case the threat becomes more serious, we already have a work from home plan that we devised in 2020 during the first lockdown and we will just roll back to that.”
Global flexible workspace provider IWG’s country manager (India) Harsh Lambah also said that unlike in the case of previous outbreaks, governments and enterprises are much better prepared today to prevent another full-blown outbreak.
Further, most businesses, especially the services sector, will kick off the holiday season from December 15-January 15. So, back-to-office plans have taken a backseat because there isn’t much point in trying to get employees back during a lean period. Besides, by January, the impact of the Omicron variant will also be clearer, experts said.
Two cases of Covid-19 Omicron variant were reported in Mumbai on Monday, taking India’s total tally of the new coronavirus variant to 23. So far, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi have reported cases. The virus strain has spread to at least 38 countries, but no deaths have been reported so far.
Meanwhile, companies have stopped all international travel. “Many companies have decided to minimise even domestic travel for the next 40-50 days and conduct seminars and meetings virtually," said global professional services firm Aon's partner for human capital business, Roopank Chaudhary. He added that firms are certainly emphasising more on double vaccinations than before and exerting more pressure on employees to get vaccinated.
“Our people policies give the flexibility to the majority of our office employees to operate in WFH mode for 50% of the time. Currently, we also have a very high level of double vaccinated employees, and we are focussed on achieving 100% soon,” said RPG Enterprises group president (HR) S. Venkatesh.
Globally, Google and Apple have also postponed their reopening dates yet again, while Facebook-parent Meta said it will monitor the situation before making any changes to its January reopening date.
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