Covid-19: Are we ready to go back to our workplaces?

June 7, 2020 12:01 AM

It’s been a while now since the virus forced offices to announce work from home for employees. Some took to it happily, some didn’t. Now, with the lockdown easing and offices slowly beginning to reopen, the time has come to ask ourselves an important question: are we ready to go back to our workplaces?

It’s been a while now since the coronavirus outbreak forced many offices to announce work-from-home guidelines for their employees.

By Reya Mehrotra

Not too long ago, it was a familiar sight for children to see their parents getting ready and rushing to work every morning. Come evening, and the kids would wait impatiently for them to return, bearing little treats on way back from work. Not any more. Now, these children watch their parents work in their pyjamas, perched on the living room couch.

It’s been a while now since the coronavirus outbreak forced many offices to announce work-from-home guidelines for their employees. With the lockdown easing, however, and many offices slowly beginning to reopen, the time has come to ask ourselves an important question: are we ready to go back to our workplaces?

Gurugram-based FYI, a health-tech product (owned by Delhi-based health-tech venture Stark Resilient Pvt Ltd) that harnesses the strength of community participation in any corporate location to deliver real-time health data to administrators, conducted a survey in April with marketing research company MindMap Advance Research to find out how employees feel about returning to their workplaces. The survey was conducted with 560 employees (85% male, 15% female) of small, medium and large enterprises in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru. The findings revealed that 93% were anxious about returning to their offices on fear of their health being compromised. Around 73% expected employers to enforce work from home as an ongoing process, while 81% said they would resume going to office only in batches.

Around 99% said they would like to see a Corporate Health Responsibility (CHR) regulation for employees on the lines of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Nearly 85% expected their employers to sanitise the office space, implement and enforce safety guidelines and advisories, and 83% want their employers to seek out new and innovative ways to protect their health while they are in office. Around 82% said they would agree to participate in measures that required them to be monitored—18%, however, said they would comply only if the privacy of their data was assured. A high sense of solidarity was also seen emerging, as 96% confirmed they would comply with health monitoring initiatives despite the inconvenience.

While the overarching feeling is one of hesitation when it comes to returning to the workplace, there is also a significant portion of the workforce, which would rather work from office. Clearly, when it comes to its adoption, work from home has divided the workforce. While many find it convenient and comfortable, others rue the long work hours and the lack of a set routine.
A case for the home office
A May 5 report published in The New York Times says millions of Americans who are working from home are feeling happier, more efficient and would like to continue working this way even when the crisis is over. And why not? Nobody really looks forward to commuting to work at peak hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, with horns blaring non-stop. They would rather spend that time with family. Besides saving time, working from home also helps one save money as one doesn’t need to spend on commutes everyday.

There are other reasons, too, why some people are in favour of continuing to work from home. One of these is lesser pollution. Noida-based ecologist Vijay Dhasmana, who in 2011 began rewilding 400 acre of wasteland in the Aravalli range in Gurugram, says employees who can work remotely should be encouraged to do so. “Those not involved in manufacturing or production can easily work from home. It would save time, reduce pollution and stress levels too. We witnessed a drop in temperature, cleaner skies, sounds of birds like never heard before and zero noise pollution during the lockdown. To save the environment, we must let our workforce that can operate from home do so and only those who need to work from office must go,” he says.

The government, too, is taking note. On May 13, the central government’s ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions drafted a work-from-home framework to be adopted by all ministries and departments. It stated that of the 75 ministries/departments presently using e-platforms, 57 achieved more than 80% work efficiency while working from home ever since the lockdown was announced. It also announced measures such as reimbursement of data usage for workers while working from home, availability of documents in e-format, issuance of laptops for official work, among others.

Another reason for people favouring work from home is the relaxed dress code. With no office to go to, people are content working in their pyjamas at home, with no need to dress up. ABC news anchor Will Reeve would relate. In April, he made headlines when he appeared on a morning show formally suited in a blue coat and light blue shirt, but no pants, with his shorts clearly showing due to the camera angle. The reporter only learnt about his error after people started sharing screengrabs of the segment on Twitter and Instagram.

To avoid such bloopers during professional video calls, corporates are allowing their employees to wear whatever they wish as long as they look “decent and presentable”. Emphasising that there is no dress code for working from home, Mohan Monteiro, chief human resources officer, House of Hiranandani, a Mumbai-based real estate developer, says, “The only ask is that they appear presentable while participating in video calls.”

Let’s go to work
There are many others, however, who are not comfortable with this way of working. Take, for instance, working mothers, whose burden has increased exponentially during this time. “One has to balance the personal and professional life while working from home. It’s not easy to work with a five-year-old running around and needing your attention. At times, I end up devoting more time to him and at times, more time to my work. In the end, one has to balance both. However, once the situation is under control and the pandemic ends, I would like to go back to my office routine, as it’s easier to understand the client sentiment face-to-face rather than on calls,” says Shalini Kanchan, a Bengaluru-based legal advisor.

Work from home also comes with longer work hours. “I have been working from home since mid-March. The work timings are more or less the same, but at times we do have to work for as much as 12 hours a day, which wasn’t the case earlier. One would go to office, work and come back home, and that would be it. But now, work sometimes continues post-midnight. On weekends, too, there are times that some work has to be done, which wasn’t the case when offices were open,” says Mumbai-based Jigar Gandhi, a social media and mail marketing executive at a management consultancy firm.

In the future, an ideal combination would perhaps be a combination of both, working from office and working from home. The ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions in its draft, in fact, mentioned that eligible officers/staff could be given the option to work from home for 15 days a year.

Many corporates, too, are exploring the idea. Fabiola Mendes, director, Bennet & Bernard Group, which provides luxury and exclusive holiday homes in Goa, says the group has been exploring a four-day office routine and two-day work-from-home routine. “Instead of longish work-from-home hours, we have adopted an approach that ensures good health and productivity of all… We are considering a four-day work week for our employees at office and the fifth and sixth days from home in the near future as work from home,” she says, adding, “We saw greater work-life balance and higher productivity during the lockdown.

Shifting to a work-from-home culture should be manageable and doable for a majority of companies in India. Even rotational, alternate working days would result in reduced travel time, increased productivity and creativity, lower costs at the business units, and environmental benefits with reduced vehicles on the road. Rapid digitisation of industries and increasing internet penetration in the country will soon ensure that virtual work centres become a fast-growing reality in the post-Covid era.”

HR speak
Human resource teams across organisations are keenly observing the situation before launching any policies. “Working from home was not a practice we had seriously considered before the pandemic, but we’ve adapted quickly. We haven’t adopted a formal work-from-home policy yet, as we want to see how the situation evolves before launching any long-term polices,” says Monteiro, adding, “We suggest that working hours remain the same while working from home.

However, we do provide flexibility in working hours to be agreed between the manager and employee, as employees have to balance work with family commitments and household chores. In the future, we may come up with certain core working hours when employees will need to be available for virtual meetings.”

Payal Kumar, professor and chair (human resources/organisation behaviour), BML Munjal University, Haryana says: “Employers will certainly reassess their way of working. Already TCS has agreed to let 75% of its workforce work from home over the next few years. Germany is working on legislation to make work from home a viable option for many employees. So this is likely to become the new normal in certain industries. While this would lead to a reduction in carbon footprint (and traffic jams!), it is also likely to result in a slump in real estate prices.”

Monteiro says that in the past two months of employees working from home, there has not been a fall in productivity. “Employees have done an amazing job in resetting their routines and finding new ways to get work done. We are setting weekly goals and tracking them to get the work done on time. Our employees have quickly become adept at using technology, be it conferencing tools, mobile apps for HR transactions, or online workflows to replace the previous pen-and-paper approvals,” he says.

The check on employees’ productivity, however, is not going down well with some. “Our management has mandated that we fill in our daily work routine charter to keep a track on work hours and the work done everyday ever since we started working from home. It’s an added burden and often one doesn’t get the time to fill it. In offices, we used to take small breaks and go out or chat with colleagues when there was no work, but with the daily work charter to be filled, one has to show that they have worked even if there was hardly any work. The seniors in such cases assign you jobs,” says Gandhi.

Word of caution
Many global companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have allowed their employees to work from home for the next few months. Microsoft, too, has extended work from home till October. Its CEO Satya Nadella, however, sounded a word of caution recently in an interview, saying that permanently working from home could be damaging for mental health. “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person next to you… you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he said.

Closer home, Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra, too, echoed the same sentiment in a series of tweets, saying that even though the idea is lucrative for developing countries, working from home might not be possible for all. “I believe there’ll indeed be more Working from Home post-the-pandemic, but the tradition of the workplace will remain predominant. Those who predict large-scale WFH are looking through affluent country lenses. A workplace brings a sense of self-worth as well as freedom from congestion & domestic stresses, especially for women. Often, in developing countries, social distancing & sanitation is more feasible at organised workplaces. But most important…A workplace, whether in the developed or developing world, allows significant, unplanned, informal interactions. Such interactions are often the source of innovation. Hence, I would advocate ‘hastening slowly’ before rushing to WFH,” he said.

To ensure good mental health of employees, many companies are now providing on-call counselling. Bengaluru-based co-working company 315Work Avenue, for one, has provisions for counselling employees working remotely. “We rolled out a standard operating procedure once the lockdown was announced and a slew of measures to ensure that our business continuity and employee productivity go hand in hand. As home isolation can turn out to be gloomy and depressing for a lot of people, we arranged for counselling sessions,” says Manas Mehrotra, chairman, 315Work Avenue, adding, “While the notion of work from home signifies a certain amount of flexibility, it does call for an additional dose of empathy and understanding of employees’ schedules. There is already anxiety and stress associated with the current situation… hence, the need to stay relaxed and balanced is all the more important.”

 

Key findings of a survey conducted in April covering 560 employees in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru

93% are anxious about returning to their offices on fear of health being compromised

99% want companies to adopt Corporate Health Responsibility akin to Corporate Social Responsibility

85% expect office spaces to be sanitised before they return

83% want employers to seek innovative solutions to monitor and safeguard their health

96% agreed to complying with health initiatives of employers regardless of the inconvenience caused

Source: FYI, MindMap Advance Research

Work from home

Pros
No commuting
Cleaner environment
Less expenditure
More time for fitness & self-care

Cons
Extended work hours
No socialising
Distractions/disturbances at home with children and domestic duties
Additional data usage
No effective communication among staff
Delay in deadlines because of coordination issues

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