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How Covid-19 Has Changed the Concept of Work, Workplace and Workforce

How Covid-19 Has Changed the Concept of Work, Workplace and Workforce

The pandemic has changed the concept of work, workplace and the workforce. As employers spruce up their USPs, hybrid and flexible work, mental health focus, and hiring from smaller cities and towns are here to stay.

Seismic Shift Seismic Shift

What is common between World War II and the coronavirus pandemic, apart from being large-scale hu - manitarian crises? They are both watershed moments in the history of work. If the former brought American wom - en out of their homes into the workforce, the latter forced a large section of the global white-collar workforce back indoors to work from home. In doing so for nearly two years now, the fast-mutating nanoscopic but lethal virus has brought widespread acceptance for remote work.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, many employees were complaining that working from home impacted their work-life balance. But things have changed and people have clearly realised the flexibility it provides. If you ask people to come back to work, 30-40 per cent of them may even quit, if there are options available,” says T.N. Hari, HR Head, bigbasket. The online grocery plat - form plans to keep all its offices open, leaving individu - als and teams to decide who comes in and when. Hari estimates that less than a quarter of his workforce will be in office at any given point.

HR executives are unanimous that this hybrid model, where employees come into office a few days of the work week and work from home on the remaining days, is the future of white-collar work. An extended, once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, coupled with the opening up of jobs and digitally enabled opportunities for skilled workers, has made them reassess their life and work priorities in an employee-driven market. Mercer India’s Senior Principal Mansee Singhal puts it like this: “The whole concept around work, workforce, and workplace has undergone a significant amount of change, and that has impacted the employee perception of what the employer value proposition is going to look like.” As organisations are forced to polish their pitches for why employees should choose them, it is heralding at least a few long-term changes in the world of work, of which the hybrid model is a major one. It gives both employees and employers the best of both worlds—flexibility and time saved on long commutes, while also making room for social interactions and collaborative work, experts say.

Conglomerate ITC, for instance, has recently approved a hybrid work policy. “We are already in hybrid mode with only 30 per cent staff in the office. But once things stabilise, we are saying two days a week, you can choose to work from any site in the base location other than the office,” says its Corporate Human Resources Head Amitav Mukherji.

Multinational bank HSBC’s India operation, which permitted flexible work even pre-pandemic for select functions, has begun classifying roles under four categories—office worker, hybrid-office worker, hybridremote worker and remote worker. “Our philosophy for flexible work starts with the customer. If something the customer needs is done from home, are we more productive or effective to meet their needs, or do we need to come to office?” says Archana Chadha, Head of Human Resources, HSBC India. The classification means employees come into office all five workdays, 60-80 per cent of the time, 20-40 per cent of the time, or work completely from home, factoring in banking regulatory requirements, she adds.

A New Paradigm

While a fairly common concept in the West, hybrid and fully remote work were regarded with suspicion in India until recently. Most Indian firms needed employees to be in office to trust that they were working. But the change has come only on the back of proof of employee productivity in these two years. “2021 has been a rockstar year whether you look at annual GDP growth or industry-wise growth. There is absolutely nothing that suggests that just because people are working from home, the industry growth has been impacted. Something is going right,” says Singhal of Mercer. Adds Deval Singh, Business Headtelecom, IT& ITeS, media and government, TeamLease Services: “There is an impact on productivity, fixed costs have come down, and so many additional variable bills because of travel and other things completely went away. Employers realise that people are actually working more diligently. There is no evidence to prove this other than the fact that the market is doing well.”

ITC’s Mukherji lists productivity gains made from focussed meetings and better time management. “This whole process of meeting remotely has ensured a lot of rigour and discipline around planning work. There is a clear consciousness that there is a finite time limit to a conversation. People plan their day based on that. Work has become far more structured.” But bigbasket’s Hari, on the other hand, doesn’t see a direct productivity boost. Employees in metro cities are saving 25 per cent of their work day by not travelling, he estimates, which they are able to spend with their families and on their own interests. “That’s all time well spent, which adds to overall quality of life and happiness. That index clearly has gone up. Even when we do pulse surveys, people are certainly very happy with this work-from-home arrangement.” This improves their work quality in intangible ways, he adds.

But one size doesn’t fit all within the hybrid framework, employers are realising. The role, the project, the team and the individual’s needs all have to be factored in now to arrive at a roster. “We learn from multiple conversations with employees through their exit interviews or during calibrations that they want that flexibility,” says Singh. Multinational IT and consulting firm Accenture, which has over 250,000 employees in India, had flexible working even pre-pandemic. “What has probably changed is the increased level of flexibility where it’s going to be very custom built and personalised to the nature of the work, the nature of our clients’ requirements and our people’s needs,” says Lakshmi C., Managing Director–Human Resources Lead, Accenture in India. For instance, she says, people in technology roles have the option to choose their work location from any of the seven Indian cities where Accenture has a presence. “We will have very specially tailored in-office schedules, depending on the team and type of work. Some teams will operate more remotely, some will require more in-person time.” So, the firm is not setting any one date for all employees to return to work.

Hyper personalisation is also business process management firm WNS’s lesson from the pandemic. Chief People Officer R. Swaminathan says: “There is no point in me trying to draw the lowest common denominator. I need to do enough so that I am able to have some standardisation segment-wise. If an individual has a medical condition and can’t come to work and the job requires them to be in office, we will get the customer’s permission for that. It’s easier solving at that level rather than putting a corporate guideline.” ITC has also introduced policies recognising unique employee situations, Mukherji says, especially for women employees where they may apply for extended leave of up to 4 years for child care, or more flexible arrangements such as extended working from home.

And yet, several organisations have veered more towards getting employees back to office every time the infection comes under control, proven by the heavy traffic on the roads during peak hours. TeamLease’s Singh says we are only seeing haphazard approaches because organisations are brainstorming and observing what other firms are doing as well. “HR heads are trying to work out a balance of how many days you want to come to office, how many days you can work from home. All of this will be drawn out in the next few months before going live in the next fiscal.”

A Wider Talent Pool

The acceptance of employee demand for flexibility of location and hours is also working out in favour of the companies as they are suddenly able to dip into a wider talent pool sitting in the non-metro cities and towns of India, especially as several employees migrated back to their hometowns. Singh sees enough hiring evidence on the ground to believe a lot of employment will shift away from metros to the smaller cities and towns in the long term, backed by better telecom and internet infrastructure: “The industry is realising that talent in rural India is not just affordable, but you can get some really good talent from there.” bigbasket’s Hari likens it to the Y2K phenomenon, which resulted in the Indian IT outsourcing industry. “Imperatives of cost and access to talent forced these global companies to recruit from across the world, distribute their teams and find ways of working together. The same thing is happening within the country now.” His team has a lot more people working from remote locations now than before the pandemic. “In the past, if somebody said, ‘I can’t relocate to Bengaluru,’ we wouldn’t hire them. But today, it’s not a prerequisite.”

The talent pool is also widened by newer formats like gig work, which is also stemming from this flexibility. The model has been used successfully by online platforms Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato for blue-collar workers, thanks to a clear link between performance and pay. It is finding some initiation now in white-collar work, too, for specialist skills. “So many of these new-age skills like digital marketing and creating websites are so specialised that it’s difficult to provide career paths to the people. And yet companies need work of this kind to be done. So, gig work is working very well,” says Hari. Employers say a gig mindset is seeping into formal employment as well because people are keen to experiment with projects and develop their skills and expertise. “In India, careers would typically only see vertical movement. But not anymore. People are saying, ‘Hey, I’ve done this enough, I want to take up something to build my perspective.’ They are looking at alternative models to build their expertise in newer areas, and the whole conversation around skills is a big trend,” says Singhal.

At HSBC, Chadha says, employees are given a flavour of gig work through a pilot started last year in India. Through ‘Talent Marketplace’, anyone in the bank’s global network can choose to work on a project posted on the forum, depending on the number of vhours they can spare for it. “The project need not be related only to their work, it could be something outside the comfort zone, a training programme they’ve done and they want to leverage the learning of it.” For three years now, WNS has allowed employees to take up additional employment for an alternative source of income. But Swaminathan has a caveat. “The problem comes in when you choose to work for, say, JP Morgan and Bank of New York at the same time. Then there is a conflict… and our clients won’t like it.”

Health Is Wealth

If the first wave of the pandemic brought the hitherto largely unaddressed issue of mental health in corporate India to the fore, the second wave showed how crucial family’s health is to the employees’ overall well-being. The impact is evident with the definition of employee wellness expanding to include both factors now. Staffing and recruitment firm Manpower’s Senior Director of Sales and Global Accounts Alok Kumar says health benefits have become one of the selling points for employers when they talk about the company to the candidate. “Earlier, even employees did not take much interest in it beyond whether the family is covered. Now, they are looking at the specifics and whether their parents and spouse’s parents are also covered.”

“What we saw with the onset of the pandemic was a need to amplify our focus on holistic well-being and not just for our people, but their families as well,” says Accenture’s Lakshmi. The firm allowed employees to personalise medical insurance and add even siblings, parents-in-law and partners as dependants, and extended mental health consultancy reimbursement for people’s dependent family members as well.

While several MNCs say they began their mental health journey before the pandemic, the global health crisis intensified their efforts and forced other organisations to take up the baton, too. Singhal concurs that she hasn’t seen as much reach out, group sessions, communication efforts, marital/relationship counselling and focus on self-care in the 20 years she has been working.

In taking baby steps towards longterm measures, organisations are experimenting with a host of initiatives. ITC recently appointed a chief medical officer for employee wellness. HSBC India and Accenture in India are training their line managers and frontline supervisors to recognise signs of mental health issues among employees even during remote interactions so that they can be guided accordingly. WNS’s Swaminathan says they have set their sights on joining a global nonprofit organisation which works on mental health. Without revealing the name, he says it requires WNS to be able to accommodate any employee with a mental health issue. The firm, he says, has begun a two-year journey to prepare its managers to be more aware and understanding of mental health. “We believe this will make us appreciate the workforce differently tomorrow. That’s a significant number of people in many businesses that we’ll be able to attract.”


Published on: Feb 07, 2022, 3:05 PM IST
Posted by: Vivek Dubey, Feb 07, 2022, 1:30 PM IST