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The first half of 2020. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

A 70% increase in peak internet usage; more than 26 million hits on a new acronym—WFH (work-from-home); a 15-times increase in laptop rentals; telecommunication companies forming a substantial chunk of stock market capitalization in India.

Welcome to the current paradigm (it may be too early to call it the “new normal"), where an IT-Enabled Services (ITeS) industry of 4.4 million people turned on its head and responded ably to a pandemic crisis, while driving business continuity in a world where conventional “business continuity planning" was shred to pieces.

There are many questions. Did the industry respond fast enough? More than 90% productivity in two months. Did captives do better? Perhaps. Are the “get-out-of-jail" cards of clients and regulators likely to be more permanent or on a 30- 60- or 90-day basis? Don’t know. Unlikely. And will the phrase “new normal" be heard even more often than “digital"?

We do not know all the answers. Nobody does. What we know is that the current work-from-home arrangements are a necessity borne out of a crisis. And that there is a strident call for organisations to enable “work from anywhere" for a reasonable proportion of their workforce, even after (not if) things return to normal, as the benefits it offers employees, firms and civilisation outweigh the costs and risks.

Not only does it provide a very different access to a talent pool, thereby potentially enhancing the organisational DNA, but it also drives real savings—on employee travel and real estate costs (rent, insurance, facility management and utilities), for example—and better customer satisfaction scores.

In our assessment, those measurable benefits are augmented by increased employee productivity, reduced absenteeism, and reduced attrition. Offshore Development Centre clients benefit from access to a wider gene pool, so to speak, and a better service experience.

A study by Forbes in the US calculated up to $11,000 in savings per employee working remotely per year. Importantly, this pandemic has proven that it reduces our carbon footprint significantly, which we need more than ever before. This initiative, we have found, can reduce greenhouse gases hugely.

Virtual organizations are the future, we have all heard. However, what does it take to achieve a virtual organisation?

We have had several conversations in the past few weeks on helping clients choose the right video conferencing solution (in the garb of a “collaboration platform"), as if that were the panacea for all ills. However, to achieve a truly virtual organisation, one needs to combine four pillars (with several sub-dimensions):

The first is its business strategy. The second is its workforce, which includes aspects such as organizational culture, behaviour and people management. The third is its operating model, and the fourth is its technology enablement.

But there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Different sectors, regions, cultures and organizations must have an aspirational target fit for their context.

Our research, based on the typical day in the life of different person, has identified four archetypes, none of them being universally better or worse.

One, the Virtual Beginner, with a traditional workspace. Two, the Virtual Comfort organization, which allows remote working in a limited manner. Three, the Virtual Aspirer, which has remote work ingrained as part of its culture, championed by its top management. Four, the Virtual Champion, which is driven by the gig-economy model and has no need for office space, by and large.

Each organisation needs to decide where it aspires to be and decipher where it is today. This clarity would help determine the technology choices it would need to make across a wide variety of dimensions. These technology choices can span multiple dimensions:

One, infrastructure, which includes security and network systems with multi-platform access. Two, access, which could be via a virtual private network, remote device management system, and identity verification tools. Three, employee experience, which covers communication and collaboration, document management and data sharing, anytime learning and development, enterprise social communities. And four, employee productivity, enhanced by project and productivity management tools.

We believe that tomorrow’s world will be in a dual state, where best-in-class ITeS campuses will share the floodlights with fully virtual geo-agnostic organizations that use remote operations as a competitive advantage. In some organizations, employees will perhaps share knowledge via instant messages, email and face-to-face communication, while in a few others, employees will utilize advanced cloud-based communication platforms that allow one-click sharing.

In some organizations, access to sensitive data would be through desktops in secure delivery workspaces, while some may allow data access anywhere, guarded by security measures like facial recognition-based anomaly detection and screen locks. Those that choose to make the most of WFH will find what’s needed for it. Imagination is the only boundary condition here.

Meetul Patel and Rajiv Gupta are, respectively, executive director, strategic growth, Microsoft, and managing director, BCG .Prasanna Santhanam of BCG also contributed to this article.

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