Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Case for work@home in the age of corona

  • Doing white-collar work from home has never been more critical. But will command-and-control bosses allow it?
  • The major hurdle for companies turns out to be psychological rather than technical. In a highly hierarchical country, command-and-control is how most companies are managed

BENGALURU : In the last week of February, the senior management of Bengaluru-based Zerodha Broking Ltd, a brokerage firm with more than two million customers, began discussing a contingency plan for employees to work from home.

Sooner than anyone could have envisioned, it was time to go ahead. From 4 March, work from home began to be rolled out. On 12 March, immediately after the World Health Organization’s announcement that Covid-19 was a pandemic, all of its 1,200 employees were instructed to do so.

None of Zerodha’s employees had come into contact with anyone with the virus. Since the online platform requires high confidentiality of financial transactions, the company has long used security protocols such as role-based access to documents and specific VPNs for different teams.

“We have a structure that enabled us to do it technically," said Kailash Nadh, Zerodha’s chief technology officer. “It is a developer-led approach."

On 13 March, the Karnataka government issued an advisory asking companies to adopt work-from-home policies where possible. Three of the eight Covid-19 cases in the state are tech employees. In response, some firms announced they would ask employees to work from home for a week, but in some cases this was after an employee was found to be infected with the virus.

On 16 March, Infosys Ltd said that it would extend work from home for all employees where possible.

Wipro Ltd also said it had advised employees to work from home if feasible. Many more companies will need to take such steps in large numbers—for weeks together—to help slow the unyielding march of the virus.

Zerodha Broking’s Nadh says the inability to do so reflects inertia at large companies, their more hierarchical structures and legacies of outdated technology and processes. Leading information technology (IT) companies say they are also bound by overseas customers, who need work to be done on site.

The growing urgency

Getting large numbers of white-collar employees to work from home has never been more critical. India’s low infection numbers thus far defy the exponential spread of Covid-19 the world over, suggesting that the low reported infection rates are the result of inadequate testing. Testing for the spread of the virus within Indian cities and towns as opposed to travellers arriving in the country is well below levels in the UK and South Korea.

As schools shut and restaurants are mostly empty, the workplace and the commute to work are at the front line of the battle against Covid-19. Chances are people in the age group between 20 years and 50 years are most likely to be exposed to the virus at work.

A study released on 14 March based on a region of France, one of the countries where the epidemic has moved with the ferocity of a forest fire, found that school closures for eight weeks—as Indian cities have recently adopted—had a limited effect.

When combined with 25% of the adult population telecommuting, however, such levels of social distancing “delay the peak by almost two months with an almost 40% reduction of the case incidence at the peak", according to the study.

In other words, the quicker companies adopt work-from-home practices, the better it would be for India’s war on Covid-19.

Indeed, Bengaluru, as a back-office to the world, ought to be in the vanguard. With videoconferencing made easier by companies such as Zoom, information sharing made seamless across teams by software from Google, Slack and Dropbox, even small firms are able to allow remote work very easily.

“The technology certainly exists for virtual meetings across multiple sites, and in tier-I and tier-II cities, the necessary internet bandwidth too, (but) jobs in which remote working is possible are a small subset," said Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University.

Command and control

The major hurdle for companies turns out to be psychological rather than technical. Command and control is not just a byword for the manner in which India’s economy has been shackled for decades. In a highly hierarchical country, it is how most companies are managed.

A Bengaluru-based performance coach says that even multinational corporations (MNCs), which routinely allow work from home, have Indian managers who do things differently. “It exists only in principle. Managers (in India) don’t like it if you do it. The manager will ask you a zillion questions," she said. In one shocking instance, the performance coach added, an employee in an insurance MNC who took advantage of the work-from-home policy to take his father for chemotherapy and then dutifully logged in for a full workday was subsequently passed over for a promotion.

In a developing country such as India, the vast number of workers in the services sector can be found in small shops, in delivery businesses or in small-scale manufacturing (according to enterprise-level government survey data) where work from home is an alien concept. “It would be impossible to do this for manufacturing companies that rely on workers putting in regular shifts and where some physical coordination between different workers is required," said Menon of Ashoka University.

Apart from ritualizing hand-washing, Sundram Fasteners Ltd, the Chennai-based automotive components company, has asked factory employees to stagger lunch timings and not sit on adjacent tables. It has even emphasized the importance of maintaining a distance of four-six feet from other employees and supervisors on the factory floor.

Given that the virus is asymptomatic for as long as two weeks, “you can only do so much", said Suresh Krishna, chairman of Sundram Fasteners. He believes there has to be much more communication between management and employees, general managers and union leaders and the government and its citizens. “Every state has to do it in its own language," said Krishna.

The company has a no-travel policy for a month and also advised employees to stay away from religious congregations.

The global response

In the past month, large numbers of companies all over the world have switched to work from home. Seattle, hit by the first outbreak in the US, saw the early adoption by companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. towards the end of February.

Investment bank JPMorgan Chase and Co. asked thousands of its employees to work from home in March. Twitter Inc. made it mandatory on 11 March.

In a memo worthy of comic strip Dilbert, Apple Inc.’s chief executive Tim Cook encouraged all employees in the company’s global offices to work from home in the second week of March in order “to reduce human density and ensure those teams on site can do their work safely and with peace of mind". The offer did not apply to those at its retail stores, according to a report in Bloomberg.

Companies such as Wipro and Infosys have had to comply with work-from-home directives from Beijing after work resumed this month in China, but are still grappling with the issue in their much- larger Indian operations.

“Everyone is looking at this now," said a top executive at an IT firm, requesting anonymity. “But, the processes are not fully developed."

By contrast, the reason many MNCs, such as JPMorgan, have been able to shift to work from home is because the ability of employees to work remotely has been part of contingency planning, which is tested and certified annually.

An employee with a media company in Hong Kong, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he and his fellow colleagues have not been to office for more than six weeks now. Yet, his workday is same as before—a mix of phone calls and on occasion video calls. When this employee misplaced his security device (office issued device with unique log ins), “within four hours, it was delivered" to his home on one of the city’s outlying islands. “If you want to flatten the curve (the rate of transmission of the virus) it’s very obvious you have to do social distancing. There is no other way," he said.

Through such measures in varying degrees and due to high levels of sanitation that involve steps such as cleaning elevator buttons several times a day, Hong Kong—despite being at the doorstep of mainland China—has managed to keep the rate of coronavirus transmission below that in countries such as Italy and the UK.

The benefits

In a letter to subscribers on 13 March, Roula Khalaf, editor of Financial Times (FT), said the newspaper’s employees in London had started to work from home.

Long before working remotely became the survival tactic that it has become today, I worked from home every Tuesday in the early 2000s while working for FT in London, a privilege then extended only to working mothers. Even on days I was in office, nearly all the regular contributors I was editing were freelancers or foreign correspondents of the newspaper in places as far flung as northern Wales, Tokyo and New Delhi. Physical proximity is not a necessity for teamwork.

Today, MNCs such as SAP SE are in the midst of a futuristic shift away from work- from-home practice to what is labelled “Work From Anywhere", where employees work remotely in geographic locations pretty much of their choice—strength of internet connections permitting.

An article in the Harvard Business Review last August (Is it Time to Let Employees Work from Anywhere?) cites productivity gains among patent examiners in the US and travel agency employees in China, when they were allowed to work from home in different provinces or even different countries.

As far-fetched as such leaps of faith in their employees would seem to most Indian employers, responses to Covid-19 are likely to reinvent office life in semi-permanent ways.

Even in an industry as people-intensive as luxury hotels where managers must be on site to greet guests, Priya Paul, chairperson of the Apeejay Surrendra Group that owns Park Group of Hotels, says the pandemic is making her consider experimenting with a Team A and Team B on different days, if staffing permits. “It’s a very good idea if you have a large-enough team," she said.

The stress of travelling in the age of Covid-19 is likely to push organizations to assess when business travel is “non-essential", even after the pandemic abates. Sundram’s Krishna says the travel ban has not only reduced costs during difficult times for the automotive industry, but sensitized customers not to expect physical business meetings.

In conclusion

The epidemic “will not make business travel or lean global supply chains disappear", said The Economist earlier this month, but will force companies to “question the wisdom of old habits".

Zerodha Broking’s Nadh argues that allowing so many employees to work remotely will dilute what he calls the obsessive “absolute control" at overly hierarchical Indian companies. “A large number of companies will be forced to experiment with working remotely," he said. “People will pay attention to the cost savings in infrastructure and logistics. It will make a permanent impression."

In the short term, more white-collar work done remotely will hopefully save lives by slowing the spread of Covid-19. In the longer term, it might yet foster better-managed companies in India—and fewer vehicles logjammed on Delhi-Gurugram roads or those headed to the Electronic City in Bengaluru.

This would be healthy both in terms of employees’ work-life balance in India’s chaotic and clogged metros, and in responding to a changing business landscape where more decision-making needs to happen further down the corporate ladder.

Rahul Jacob covered the SARS epidemic in 2003 as the Hong Kong bureau chief of FT.

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