Business Today

Send workers home...

...without sacking them. Corporates are increasingly putting in place telecommuting policies to cut costs and increase productivity.

Tejaswi Shekhawat And Virat Markandeya | Print Edition: January 25, 2009

Mornings are particularly busy for Simone Premji, 34, Manager, HR, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Mumbai. It’s a race against time to complete household chores, but Premji is in no hurry to leave for office—simply because she works from home. Premji joined TCS in 2002 and worked from office for three years until she had her daughter, Aliya. She initially took a year off and then wanted to get back to work. As a working mother, she was better off with a flexible working option. She got more than that; TCS gave her the option to work fulltime from home. Now her daughter goes to school, but she continues to work from home. “Something that started on a need basis has become a policy and way of working now,” she says. TCS does not have a work-from-home (WFH) policy, but extends the same to employees who need it.

Mumbai-based Sameer Deshmukh’s daughter Richa thinks her father has probably lost his job. What else could explain his presence at home when he should be in the middle of meetings in his office? The answer to Richa’s confusion lies in the ‘Work from Home Pilot Programme’ at IT and BPO company MphasiS where Deshmukh, 42, works as Delivery Leader of the banking vertical. Deshmukh says he can’t wait for this pilot programme to become a fulltime policy. “With e-mails and phone, there are no issues of connectivity. We are in a world where face-time is not required. Everything, including appraisals, can be done on e-mails,” he says.

Simone Premji Manager, HR, TCS

Why telecommute:
“Needed to balance out work and family”

Challenges: “Sometimes connectivity and a sense of dis-engagement”

Premji and Deshmukh are part of a growing number of employees opting for virtual workplaces or telecommuting, with organisations increasingly putting in place fulltime work-from-home programmes. The objective is two-pronged—to retain the talent pool and cut costs. But, that’s not all. Says Shanthi Naresh, Principal Consultant, Human Capital, Mercer Consulting (India): “WFH policies have a great impact on employee engagement… while many organisations explicitly position WFH practices as part of the company’s total reward strategy and use it as a great attraction and retention tool, the impact of WFH practices on employee engagement is often underestimated.”

The trend of telecommuting may strengthen with organisations looking at reining in costs. “Today, when most organisations are trying to enforce cost-cutting measures, telecommuting is one of the most effective. From an employee’s perspective, though, people may think twice. They will not want to move out of office. The employees may worry along the lines of— out of sight, out of mind,” says Elango R., Chief Human Resource Officer, MphasiS.

Lower cost, higher productivity
While the jury is still out on the benefits of work-from-home, costcutting is clearly one of the drivers. “This policy seems to be working well for both the company and the employees. The productivity of our employees has gone up by 20 per cent,” says Elango. Elango does some numbercrunching to drive home the point. “On an average, a company spends Rs 22,000 per person only on the seat cost. When he is working from home, all his needs like AC, food, transport etc., are taken care of.” Elango would know because he works from home as well. “We as an organisation have to look at this as a policy and not a privilege because it probably benefits us more than the employee,” he says.

IT major Cognizant, too, is actively adopting WFH. It is providing the option of telecommuting to people engaged in production support activities to avoid commute at odd hours. Says T. Sridhar, Chief People Officer, Cognizant: “Our belief is that if a fifth of our employees becomes part of this new arrangement, over a period of time, we would have effected a 20 per cent saving in investments in real estate, a 20 per cent increase in productivity of our employees and a 20 per cent improvement in customer satisfaction levels when these employees remain available to them on demand.”

Vandana Arora Assistant Manager, Quality, Genpact

Why telecommute: “I have a small kid so I opted to work from home”

Challenges: “No major challenges”:

Genpact sees telecommuting benefits in terms of employee satisfaction and thus, retention. Says Rajeev Sharma, Vice President HR, Finance and Accounting, Genpact: “We are rapidly moving towards the world of virtual organisations. The work-from-home policy helps us in talent pool retention. Re-training cost and loss of knowledge gets taken care of.”

At Genpact, there is only three per cent attrition among employees working from home. Currently, the company has 500 employees working from home and it plans to increase the number to 5,000 by 2010.

No weak links
According to a white paper on Changing World of Work by Manpower Inc., by 2016, 63 per cent workers globally want to work flexibly and 84 per cent employers recognise this as a significant benefit in terms of retention. Vandana Arora, 30, Assistant Manager, Quality, Genpact, Gurgaon, is a recent convert to work-from-home. She has been working from home (which started on a need basis) for the past eight months. “It started because of my two-and-a-half-year-old son, but now I love it,” she says. Arora is part of a five-member team and two more members of the team work from home. “It’s a perfect team at work with deadlines and deliverables,” she says.

Are the work-from-home members of the team weak links? “I don’t think so. I have even got a promotion in the past six months,” she says.

Companies want results. Whether you come to office every day or work from home, at the end of the day, it’s the output that matters, say HR heads. “An employee’s performance should be calculated on what he delivers, rather than how many hours he spends in office,” says Elango.

TCS sets goals for its workfrom-home employees and tracks their performance and achievements based on which their performance assessment and appraisal takes place at the end of the year. “Meeting the deliverables of the job assigned is the key measure of performance,” says Ajoy Mukherjee, Vice President and Head, Global HR, TCS.

Sameer Deshmukh Delivery Leader, MphasiS

Why telecommute: “My company wants me to. I am liking it”

Challenges: “The family needs to cooperate and be serious about the whole affair

The limitations
Telecommuting is not free from its share of challenges. For starters, it can only be offered to employee profiles that have no security and privacy issues involved. “If you are working on a client basis, then it is critical that your client is comfortable with your employees working form home,” says Elango. Work-from-home may not work well where working together in a team and using a common pool of physical resources to deliver results is essential. Examples of this are in product engineering type functions where physical collaboration is vital for innovation. Mercer’s Naresh points out: “This is, however, changing with a number of collaboration and knowledge management tools proliferating in the market.”

On the flip side, WFH is sometimes a challenge because of unreliable power supply, lack of private working space at home, and a constantly ringing door bell. If employees make provision to tackle these issues, then WFH is very convenient.

Apart from this, there are execution challenges, too. According to Subash A.K. Rao, Director, Human Resources, Cisco India, work evaluation and absence of external motivation are two of the main challenges. Those working in teams might feel isolated and miss the interaction with co-workers. Many employees find they can get more work done without the distractions of a corporate environment, but some others find themselves unfocussed without other people around to motivate them. Cisco is implementing a work-fromhome policy on an ad-hoc basis, which is a carry-over of its worldwide policies.

HR heads say that it helps to have clear rules of engagement. “Telecommuting is a good option once certain pre-requisites, like a structured performance management approach, are in place and the employee’s bonus is mapped onto productivity,” says Rao.

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