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Home / Industry / Human Resource /  The tech workers scripting a return to roots

BENGALURU : Last August, Balamurugan Natarajan, a product manager at Zoho Corp., moved from Chennai to Poigaikaraipatti, a small hamlet in the foothills of Azhagar Kovil, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district. Balamurugan, a 20-year veteran at the software-as-a-service (SaaS) unicorn, is now the anchor of Zoho’s newly-opened satellite office there.

Manikandan Subramaniam, director of engineering at Kovai.co, a SaaS company based in Coimbatore, spent the whole of 2020 managing his 50-plus team from a farmhouse in a rural area. Like Balamurugan, he chose to move out of Chennai and took up residence in Coimbatore last October.

Both techies are happy with their decisions. “When Zoho expanded its rural revival efforts in 2020, I realized that this was a chance for me to move closer to my roots. Madurai is home for both my wife and my mother, so I signed up," says Balamurugan. “We lead a healthier lifestyle here. The population density in this rural community is lower and the risk of getting covid is also low." He now lives in a two-storied house with his family amid lush green surroundings. The best part: his commute to the office takes just 15 minutes, compared to the long travel times in Chennai.

Manikandan, on the other hand, feels there is no change in his lifestyle. “We have everything in Coimbatore except for the friends and connections we had established over the years," he says. “I don’t get the feeling that I moved from one city to another after 16+ years."

Like Balamurugan and Manikandan, thousands of techies have chosen to move to their home towns and villages and work from there. They have moved for various reasons: to stay safe from covid, get closer to their roots, escape the pressures of big-city life, spend more time with family or just to enjoy a slice of life in the hinterland.

Keenly aware of this pronounced shift and how it has had no adverse impact on productivity—in some instances productivity has actually gone up —IT companies large and small have been lining up to support techies looking to migrate from metro cities. The tech firms are either opening centres in tier-2 cities and rural centres to support this growing workforce or allowing them to work from home or through hybrid arrangements where they attend office when required. And thanks to this big shift, tier-2 cities including Coimbatore, Madurai, Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Visakhapatnam as well as small towns, are emerging as tech hubs.

Support from the top

Zoho began promoting rural offices long before the trend picked up in the wake of the pandemic. The company’s satellite offices are small establishments that can accommodate 20-60 people. Zoho opened its first rural office in 2011 in Tenkasi, a village in Tamil Nadu.

“We want to set up centres in smaller towns as well as rural areas for two reasons. One, by bringing more and more people from smaller towns to big cities, we are uprooting them. By locating our offices closer to where people come from, it allows employees to remain rooted as well as closer to family, friends, and the community. Secondly, we pay the same salary in urban as well as our rural centres, which translates into more benefits for those working in rural centres," says Sridhar Vembu, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Zoho, who shifted from the Bay Area in California to Tenkasi in October 2019.

Vembu isn’t the only founder who has moved away from the concrete jungles. Allwyn Kent, founder and CEO of Vonnue —a digital-focused IT services company, is yet another example of an entrepreneur who has taken the reverse migration route. The Kerala native started his company in Singapore in 2018 and later that year moved its development centre to Kochi before shifting to Wayanad in 2020.

“Once covid hit, the team had to go fully remote. That’s when I floated the idea of moving the company to Wayanad. Initially, there was a negative perception about Wayanad among people who were not sure if they could find good housing, schools and healthcare facilities," says Kent.

“A few of the young team members were thrilled, so we started an office in Wayanad for those who were willing to relocate. The company decided to offer free food and accommodation as perks. Within a few months, we were house hunting as everyone moved here, and now, we have over 40 happy employees breathing quality air and working on projects across the world from a beautiful scenic green town," he adds.

Kent says with conviction that none of his employees is thinking of returning to a metro city. At a time when attrition rates in the IT industry are at an all-time high, Kent boasts of a 0% attrition rate in the last year. “This is in stark contrast to the Great Resignation trend all over the world."

Even technology is no longer a constraint today. “One can easily get reliable leased-line connections with strict SLAs (service level agreements). Electricity is a challenge but we have a generator to solve it and are working on a solar installation to fully go green and not be dependent on state electricity. To attract more people to tier-3/4 cities like Wayanad, the government must ensure good education for the employees’ kids, as well as medical facilities," says Kent.

Big Tech’s hiring strategies

Today, the hiring strategy of IT firms in tier-2 cities seems to be driven more by quality than the cost of talent. “We will be hiring more from tier-2 cities, not from a cost perspective but from a talent-reach and availability perspective given that we are in a supply constrained environment…we have a lot of our centres in tier-2 cities, including Kochi, Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneshwar, Noida, Coimbatore," says Saurabh Govil, chief human resources officer, Wipro Ltd.

HCL Technologies Ltd is exploring the option of hiring people who live in non-metros near its delivery centres. “We will hire talent where it is available. We will need them to come into our facility at some point, so we want to see where we have facilities around those locations. Even if people are 150 kilometres away, and they need to come to the office for a couple of days, they should be able to come," says C. Vijayakumar, CEO & MD, HCL.

At Bengaluru-based Mindtree Ltd, tapping into cities that offer a good talent pool and creating opportunities for broad-based, diversified growth are important aspects of the growth strategy. Mindtree’s decision to set up offices in cities such as Coimbatore and Warangal is a part of the company’s ‘Work of the Future’ talent strategy.

“The idea is to take work to talent instead of bringing talent to work. More than anything else, it is about scaling and diversifying our talent pool," says Debashis Chatterjee, CEO & MD, Mindtree. “Expanding our presence across tier-2 and -3 cities will help us become more inclusive and take the benefits of our growth to more people… Home to a number of engineering and science colleges, these cities are rich reservoirs of entry-level talent. Mid- and high-level professionals from these cities are also looking for opportunities to return to their roots. The talent in these locations is clearly excited to associate with a brand such as Mindtree without having to relocate," he adds.

Apart from the big tech terms, several startups based in tier-2 and -3 cities are hiring more people, indicating business growth and availability of talent. Kovai.co has increased its employee base by 40% to 250 employees. It is currently looking to hire 40-50 people across multiple departments.

“Coimbatore is a powerhouse of talent. The city and its neighbouring districts have the highest density of colleges within a 100 km radius, making it an educational hub. These educational institutes help hone students with the right skills required for a job, especially in the tech industry. Also, they are hungry for opportunities. We want to build and nurture local talent, have lateral hires who will help us grow further, and turn Coimbatore into the next big SaaS hub," says Saravana Kumar, founder and CEO, Kovai.co.

Chennai-based human resource solutions firm Neeyamo doubled its headcount to 3,000 employees last year, of which 80% belong to non-metro cities such as Madurai, Thanjavur, Nagpur, Belagavi, and Aurangabad. Neeyamo is hiring across all its centres, especially in Madurai and Nagpur, and aims to establish remote development centres in 20 tier-2 and tier-3 cities across India.

“Surprisingly, young talent in tier-2 and -3 cities is not lagging when it comes to using digital platforms/courses to stay relevant in today’s market. People in these cities are eager to learn and improve, and they adjust quite quickly. It is our mission to provide as many job opportunities as possible to the talent pool available in these untapped cities across India," says Rangarajan Seshadri, CEO, Neeyamo.

More to come

The hiring outlook for the Indian IT sector looks promising in 2022 as the country recovers from the pandemic-induced slowdown and returns to normal operational levels. Many IT giants have announced plans to hire at least 50,000 to 65,000 employees each by the end of this year and a large chunk of this talent pool is expected to come from the non-metros.

“Talent will be sourced across tiers and levels of experience due to reverse migration of young professionals, who are looking to work from anywhere with attractive pay packages and flexible timings … established IT companies will continue to widen their geographical footprint and adopt digitised hiring to bridge the supply gap for key talent," says Yeshab Giri, chief commercial officer, Staffing, Randstad India.

Giri says that companies will begin hiring freshers in non-metro cities through online platforms due to the recent revolution in campus recruitments. “Colleges in tier 2-3 cities are now connecting graduates to a wide variety of companies through online guest lectures and interview programmes, thereby opening avenues for companies to hire talent in remote regions," he says.

Importantly, working from non-metros does not necessarily mean lower salaries and most companies pay employees on par with other locations. In fact, the Randstad Salary Trends Report 2021 added tier-2 cities as a category for the first-time last year given that they are emerging as future talent hubs and job creation centres.

Chandigarh tops in terms of salaries paid in junior and mid-level tier-2 cities. Bhubaneshwar leads the table among tier-2 cities for senior levels, averaging a healthy cost to company (CTC) of 31.15 lakh per annum. Also, the average CTC of 5.67 lakh per annum at the junior level in tier-2 cities is slightly higher than the 5.52 lakh per annum national average among tier-1 cities.

In the recently-presented Union Budget, too, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman alluded to promoting smaller cities alongside urban development. “We need to facilitate tier-2 and -3 cities to take on the mantle in the future. This would require us to reimagine our cities into centres of sustainable living with opportunities for all, including women and youth. For this to happen, urban planning cannot continue with a business-as-usual approach. We plan to steer a paradigm change," she said.

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