BANGALORE - India's IT companies are bringing their employees back into the office after 18 months of working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The country's biggest private employer Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), however, is adapting permanently to a distributed work model where a majority of its workforce works from home.
TCS employs more than half a million people across the world, including 40,000 in the Asia-Pacific region that includes Singapore, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia and Australia. By 2025, the IT giant aims to have no more than 25 per cent of its employees anywhere in the world working from the office.
Following closely, other companies like Infosys and HCL Technologies are beginning to embrace a hybrid style of working, where they ask the staff to operate from the office only for half the week.
Cisco in Bangalore has instituted a permanent work-from-home policy, and only 5 per cent of its 12,000 employees now work in the office.
This mammoth shift to a flexible work culture could mean more workplace diversity, better work-life balance and saved commuting costs.
It could also impact cities with sprawling IT parks like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Gurgaon: Traffic jams would ease up, but the real estate market for IT parks, mega offices and multi-storey apartments catering to techies could shrink.
As India went into a hard lockdown from March last year, all offices, except those of essential government and medical services, were shut for three months.
India's daily Covid-19 caseloads averaged 30,000 a day last week, lower than the 414,000 cases in early May at the peak of the second wave.
The country is now better prepared to face the possibility of another wave of Covid-19, with improved hospital facilities, about 29 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, and offices adopting hygiene standards as the norm.
Karnataka IT minister C. N. Ashwath Narayan said that prolonged work from home by Bangalore's companies had hurt the city's economy.
"We all want offices to open up to provide succour to allied sectors like taxis, security, maintenance, and canteens. But if there is a third wave, they'll have to WFH (work from home) again."
Most large Indian companies had not experimented with remote work until the pandemic hit.
"It took us two weeks to pivot to the work-from-home model," said Mr Girish Ramachandran, president of TCS Asia Pacific.
Under India's strict first lockdown in March 2020, the company shifted laptops and workstations to their employees' homes, quickly created work collaboration models, and, overnight, expanded its secure digital cloud to ensure data confidentiality for its clients.
By the third week, 96 per cent of Indian TCS staff were working from home. Now, the company doesn't want to go back to the old model.
In September, TCS' workforce in India is gradually returning to the office, emboldened by Covid-19 jabs, better mask hygiene, and declining virus transmission. But in a few years, the company wants most of them working remotely, pandemic or not.
Mr Ramachandran said TCS wants to be "100 per cent agile" by 2025. Agility doesn't mean people won't come to the office, but that only 25 per cent of associates come to office at a time.
Beyond flexible working hours and minimised office time, the company's "secure borderless workplace" will recreate technology, workflow, connectivity and appraisal systems.
Managers will have to set clear expectations first, and then go by outcomes and task completion to assess their subordinates, rather than physical monitoring. This means rethinking work as an activity, not a place.
The company's challenge is to establish four elements, said Mr Ramachandran: communication lines, digital teamwork tools, data and people management clouds, and cyber security.
"Since the pandemic got everyone working through the digital medium, we have been able to install the changes faster," said Mr Ramachandran. The company has created "nano training courses" of 10 minutes each for the new cloud technologies it has introduced.
For instance, the IT giant has a talent cloud, where it will pair the right set of people for a project, wherever in the world they are based.
Clients have been asking TCS for "agile workflows" too in the past year.
In a major project in the airline sector in Singapore, TCS redesigned a digital collaboration system for 400,000 employees, said Mr Ramachandran. It also helped workforce solutions company ManpowerGroup shift 98 per cent of its workforce to the home in the United States, Europe and India and close its quarterly books on time.
Banking, insurance and financial institutions in Asia are early adopters of secure digital databases, but now want to automate more processes like credit eligibility assessment and quicken remote decision making.
While investments in training, server capacity, device capability, cloud computing and unified communication are up, travel costs have been driven remarkably down. From travelling 20 days a month, Mr Ramachandran can now work almost entirely from home or the office in Singapore, where he is based.
"Life has completely changed… And there is no problem in output," he said.