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How Covid-19 has changed the way we work, and how different employees are responding to it

Companies and start-ups are experimenting with three-day workweeks for reduced salaries, and hybrid work models — what does it mean to a working mother and to a company’s CEO?

Written by Benita Fernando | New Delhi |
Updated: October 10, 2021 7:49:19 am
eye 2021Illustration: Suvajit Dey

Working from home since March 2020, transactional lawyer Debarita Roy (name changed), 26, found a new work routine. In the time spent waiting for a reply from a colleague or a client on an email, Roy can make a batch of cookies if she wants to. “I think I am living my best life now,” she says. Before the pandemic hit about 20 months ago, she would spend three hours commuting back and forth from her home in Delhi to her workplace, a corporate law firm in Gurugram. It meant taking a Metro, or a cab when she could afford it, only to end up arguing with drivers. Worse, she developed spondylosis and gut issues due to her workplace’s high-pressure environment. Bottomless cups of aerated drinks and coffee kept her running through the day.

Now, instead of caffeine shots, she naps. Her work hours are similar to what they used to be – video conferencing with Indian and international clients was the norm even back then, with an irregular sleep schedule in sync with her meetings – but Roy feels she has greater control over how her day is spent. “I can feel the physiological changes to my body working from home. I feel more relaxed now,” she says.

Roy’s workplace hasn’t established a definitive policy yet for employees to return to office, but she is unlikely to go back to how things used to be. She is among the many who have rethought their work lifestyles in the year gone by. It may be hard to accept, but in a twisted way, a deadly pandemic has provided a huge opportunity for restructuring workplaces. With more offices readying themselves to usher back employees, there is a growing need to accommodate these new expectations. Companies and start-ups are experimenting with shorter workweeks for reduced salaries, and hybrid work models – a mix of work-from-home and work-from-office – are gaining traction.

According to a report from McKinsey Global Institute published in February, the greatest disruptions to work before COVID-19 involved new technologies and growing trade. Now, it is the physical dimension of work. Among eight countries that were studied, including India, the report observed that the most obvious impact of the pandemic on the labour force is the dramatic increase in employees working remotely, a trend that may continue less intensely than at the pandemic’s peak. Early on this year, some companies planned to shift to flexible workspaces and bring fewer workers into offices, having seen the positive experiences of remote work during the pandemic.

It has most certainly been the experience with Nagarro, a global provider of IT services and consulting, which is known to not have a headquarters. Remote working, in the sense that employees frequently communicated with each other across continents without needing to meet in person, had always been the culture at Nagarro but the pandemic allowed them to hire more people without being restricted by geography. They opened or are opening smaller offices in Dehradun, Indore and Chandigarh, for instance – something they couldn’t have necessarily executed efficiently pre-pandemic.

Manas Fuloria, co-founder and CEO of Nagarro, says, “In order to go against the reflexive idea that the people we are working with have to be sitting next to us, we tried out all kinds of experiments. Even if some of us were coming into our offices, we began to assign them floors or buildings randomly. Teams were split across buildings.” Now, as more staff are permitted into offices according to pandemic guidelines, Nagarro is putting a limit on the number of days they can be in office – twice a week – and managers are forbidden from calling colleagues to the office for meetings. “We believe that the world has changed forever. We will try to provide our colleagues with as much choice as possible in terms of working from home or working from another location,” says Fuloria, 49.

What seems to be key to Nagarro’s policy for its Indian employees, and others like them, is the emphasis on choice. In several work environments across India, it is routine to experience a partial or absolute loss of control over one’s day, what with the demands of managers, the pressure of deadlines and piles of emails. These dictate the terms of the day, and possibly the employee’s life, and may eventually erode their sense of agency. By offering flexibility, there is a chance for employees to feel that certain aspects of the job, if not the profession in its entirety, are of their choosing.

In fact, the pandemic has made companies realise that all you need might be a laptop and a stable Wi-Fi connection. It’s a double-edged sword certainly but some could find it beneficial to work out of hill stations or beaches. A sunrise hike or a sunset beach stroll aside of working hours is perfectly manageable, and, perhaps, even invigorating. It is a major attitude shift, especially in India, where employees are expected to “show your face” at the office as a way of establishing their productivity and gaining the employer’s trust.

Several surveys published this year point to how the hybrid work model may be the best and possibly the only way forward. The future of work is hybrid, is one conclusion. Bengaluru-based fintech company Slice, for instance, is offering new hires a three-day workweek with 80 per cent salaries at the market rate. It’s aimed at increasing work-life balance, according to reports, and the company’s founder, Rajan Bajaj, has stated, “A three-day work week allows us to recruit a certain calibre of talent because it’s a perk big-tech companies like Google and Amazon don’t offer.”

This hybrid future is a prospect that might interest many because work-from-home is not always the ideal scenario. Chennai-based Rosalin John, 36, who works in HR consulting with a leading IT company, says, “The pandemic has made things exponentially difficult for parents, especially mothers. Before the pandemic, I juggled school with office, but I never felt the burn as much as I do now.” The upside to working from home was time saved on commuting and more movie nights with her husband and two sons, aged 11 and 6, says John.

The troublesome parts lie in the complete collapse between the professional and the personal. Earlier, she could tell a caller to ring back after 10 am because she was commuting, but that’s no longer the case. Her younger son has to be trained in writing from home, and many mothers like her have chosen to take it easy. She also notes that lunchtime is tough because it means feeding young children as well within that hour.

Her employer has been cognizant of these changes, she says. The company advised employees to be patient and accommodating of children who unintentionally feature in their parents’ work video-calls, whether it’s because they are in need of a well-deserved snack or a much-needed cuddle. “I see several children come on work calls and I have got to know them more during this pandemic than I did before. Most colleagues are accepting of these changes but we still have some way to go. We need to understand that this is us invading home spaces and not children who are invading work spaces,” says John.

The one thing her family tries to do is to have evening tea together, no matter how hectic the day is or what calls need to be attended. Tea is had on the roof terrace – a privilege, John says. Yet, a coffee at the cafeteria, during the evening break or when she needed to step away from the screen for a bit, is something that she misses sorely. It meant a timeout but now it means washing dishes, fixing a coffee and a variety of hot beverages for the rest of the family. With return to office being pushed to the next quarter at her company, John believes she will welcome a hybrid work format, but only if schools reopen and safety measures are taken for children. In the absence of safe support systems for children, working mothers like John are likely to continue working from home, even if the hybrid model is rolled out.

Much like policies on disabilities and inclusion, it will be imperative for employers to note that cookie-cutter solutions won’t fix the unique problems of different groups of people. In India, those who are a part of the informal sector and in blue-collar jobs have been back to the “workplaces” for a while, though. For domestic workers, construction labourers, vegetable vendors, security personnel and others, showing up means everything. In a report on the future of work published by Capgemini Research Institute in December 2020, nearly 70 per cent of organisations believed the productivity gains of remote working are sustainable beyond the pandemic. The report, noted however, that most organisations have announced remote working policies only for corporate employees. Companies would need to be careful not to create a rift between knowledge workers, who can transition to remote work easily, and the shop floor or factory workers, whose jobs are more tied to organisational premises, the report added. It quoted Sunil Ranjhan, senior vice-president, HR, at automobile company Maruti Suzuki India, who stated, “Currently, the pandemic is on so you could have very differentiated ways of working. But comparisons between blue-collar and white-collar employees are bound to come up. Going forward, I see that could be one of the issues.”

McKinsey Global Institute’s report also pointed out that some work that technically can be done remotely is best done in person. These include negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees. The same can be said of certain jobs where there is the need to interact face-to-face with people, such as for the staff at Max Foundation, a global health non-profit that helps cancer patients with access to treatments and medicines.

Viji Venkatesh, the region head of Max Foundation in India and South Asia, calls the pandemic “an unwelcome catalyst”. While her colleagues have been able to transition to remote working, it wasn’t without challenges. Working from home meant sharing desk space with family members or setting up special study chairs – all of which employers need to look into, says Venkatesh, 70. Many of the employees are women, who had to cope with homeschooling, the demands of the family, and perhaps, the belief that a man’s work is more important than a woman’s. Many of their cancer patients are also located in places where access to a smartphone is difficult.

Venkatesh was back in office in September last year, long before India had started its vaccine roll-out. This month onward, the staff, now fully vaccinated, will be back in office on a rotational basis. “I don’t think we want a new normal. We want an old normal,” says Venkatesh, who believes that apart from these pandemic protocols, they hope to work in a manner nearly similar to how things used to be. As much as she loved her apartment and the time she got to spend with her husband, she prefers things to be in “neat, controlled compartments”. Some of her determination, she says, is owed to her age. “I’ve had a great life but this pandemic kind of made me feel there’s so much more to be done. And my team is very young. I have this feeling I should lead by example being so much older than them,” she says.

Fuloria says that when Nagarro decided to reopen their offices, there was a great divide between how work from home was seen by most people and how managers saw it. In a survey conducted across their India offices, with 5,302 respondents, 95 per cent wanted three days or fewer in office. Managers had a different story, however. “They had concerns about how their workloads had increased or how their days were spent mostly in videoconferences. There were other challenges. How do we train people on culture? How do you get creative ideas if you are not in the same place? Can we get people to stick with the company if it’s just a virtual bond?” Fuloria says. It, however, wasn’t insurmountable. Nagarro has now flipped the purpose of the office space. Henceforth, the workplace will be a space where colleagues get together to connect, skill-up and relax, over free beers when possible.

The question still remains why it took a pandemic to make employers reassess, or at least re-orient, the purpose of workplaces. Fuloria believes that one reason has been the inability to factor in the great technological leaps made in the last decade. “All through our lives we lived with the assumption of a five-day workweek or an eight-hour workday, but there are no real reasons for them. The availability of inexpensive videoconferencing tools and bandwidth are a critical part of this reorientation,” he says.

For several companies, the return to offices will also mean that employees are able to see tangible ways by which the pandemic is addressed, such as special paid leave for recovery from COVID-19, support for long-COVID, and access to therapy as part of their healthcare package. It would mean accepting that for young employees, their first job starts off being remote and that they might have a difficult time transitioning to a five-day week in office. It may also mean understanding that we live in an ableist world, where the needs of several employees are disregarded.

Fiona Thomas (name changed), 26, a media manager who works in the education sector, left Mumbai when the pandemic hit and shifted home to Kerala. The organisation that she works for paid for the employees’ vaccinations and is planning to reopen in a controlled manner eventually. But Thomas doubts if she will want to go back to office. Thomas, who manages an immunocompromised health condition – which means no partying, no alcohol, no spicy food – finds that having a support system at home actually helps with her productivity. “Living in Mumbai alone, I was responsible for my own self, which was a lot for someone with my condition,” Thomas says. Like nearly everyone in Mumbai, Thomas did a long commute by public transport to work, only to get back home and finish the chores of the day. The education sector didn’t really allow her the financial package to hire a domestic worker either. At home, her dietary needs are taken care of without any hitch and she helps her parents around the house. Evenings are spent relaxing in the company of family and friends, all of this while being as productive as she always was. “It is why I find it fundamentally confusing that in the last 19 months, we have been incredibly productive and we have been able to succeed in everything we picked up. So, why report in to office when it’s not needed?” she asks.

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