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New Delhi: Many more corporates are now thinking about the transition back to office now that the vaccination drive is on. The office, nevertheless, will not be the same again. Companies are moving towards a hybrid way of working that changes the very purpose of the office, Paul Dupuis, MD & CEO of staffing company Randstad India told Mint. Excerpts from an interview.

People thought WFH was the new normal, but it turned out to be a phase. What are clients telling you?

There were three patterns. First were companies very eager to get back to office as soon as possible. Some did as early as June 2020. Manufacturing was the most eager because when plants shut down, the business comes to a stall. Some corporates also cautiously started to reopen in June. Few companies that opened early got hit hard by covid-19 and had to backtrack. The second phase came in September-October.

The third phase is about companies like Randstad. We said we will remain closed till we believe it is absolutely safe. Everyone has protocols to keep their offices clean and safe, but the issue is travelling from home to office—the most conservative group of companies are still concerned about that piece. But every company has now realised that not everyone is ready to go back to office even if the company and the government says it is safe. Randstad’s data shows that regardless of the country, between 25-35% of people prefer working remotely.

Since Randstad has been conservative, what is the company’s stance now?

I would say we are cautiously optimistic. We did a test run early February. We brought in senior leaders across the country into our offices. We came up with a 10% rule. In Bangalore, we had 10-12 people. We have developed an app with a partner that controls the A to Z of the workflow. An employee has to apply for permission to come to work through an app, reserve a desk in a location. We wanted to test the tech and the logistics. It went well. We will stagger openings rather than open all our locations at once. If a city like Mumbai is spiking (in covid cases), we won’t open there.

Is it safe to conclude that the days of permanent employee seats are over?

Even before covid, I was leading a global initiative for Randstad, which was designed around future proofing the way we work. Covid has accelerated the initiative and allowed us to re-think the purpose of an office. Previously, the office was a place you reported to work, and we grew up in a work of present-ism—as leaders we managed teams who were present in office. Now, we are moving towards a hybrid way of working. The purpose of the office will change. Instead of being a place where you report to work, the purpose will be collaboration and celebration. The real work can be done from anywhere. This has big implications. You need to re-think the footprint of the office, the size, the location etc. Randstad is re-thinking all its offices around the world.

Does that mean real estate rationalisation?

One of the things we are sensitive about is that all businesses are about people. It is important we have a physical and a visible presence. We need to be close to our clients and candidates — we put to work 62,000 every day. Offices are an integral part of any company; they help create culture, a rallying point. We have 75 offices in India. We have consolidated some in very small locations. But it is not about cost cutting. The knee jerk reaction among a lot of companies was to reduce their footprint. Global MNCs in India downsized but when the demand rebound happened, they realised that they were lacking space. We leveraged that, used some of our vacant space and turned them into offshore development centres.

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