Many IT and ITeS organisations had been practising work from home (WFH) even before the pandemic set in. It was a part of their work culture, but for many others, it’s a new phenomenon. WFH was not a practical option for those in manufacturing, hospitality, performing arts, heavy industries and the government sector. The culture of these organisations had always been work from office. Fixed working hours and managing the productivity of the hours spent in the office were the norm. In the current Covid environment, even those who never accepted the idea of WFH have embraced it for their greater good.
After six months, the economy, globally, is unlocking and employees have started to go-to-office. However, the phenomenon of going-to-office is a function of the comfort of an organisation and the guidelines that the local government has issued.
As of now, most of the companies, irrespective of the organisation’s DNA and work culture, are scared of returning to the traditional way of working. They understand the responsibility and risks posed by Covid.
The organisations that have their employees working from home have taken all possible measures to prevent further spread of the virus and data privacy issues while taking care of the comfort of employees working from home. Most of the companies have also brought in digital tools for efficient management of the workforce and ensured that everyone is performing their tasks, thereby bringing in efficiency in operations.
Going forward, companies would progressively look after protection of data, better employee-employer communications, streamlining operation process, controlling the quality of production, and mental and physical health of employees. Most importantly, they would invest in improving data security, IT hardware and software infrastructure. This situation also warrants an organisation-wide digital transformation. We are likely to witness an exponential rise in digital transformation offerings.
During the lockdown, we saw that the IT and ITeS industry transitioned to the WFH model smoothly providing business continuity to clients without lowering quality or productivity, surprising industry leaders and customers alike. A key reason was strict adherence to quality processes and availability of communication bandwidth from homes. This forced experiment of WFH has been a sizable success and has thrown open a new debate – why can’t we continue with WFH?
The group that is promoting the idea of WFH is also propagating the idea of work from small towns. They count the benefits in the form of improved recruitment and retention equity, reduced infrastructure expenses, reduced transport, real estate and operating costs. They argue that the IT and ITeS industry has adopted delivery processes that are designed for quality output from its inception. Moreover, the argument is based on the fact that the IT and ITeS industry is designed to do remote consulting, operations and development.
Telecom giant AT&T, between 2000 and 2005, tripled its team of WFH or work from remote (WFR) location workers. This helped AT&T save $180 million — $30 million in real estate costs and $150 million in increased productivity, apart from improving retention rates.
Experts believe small towns are better equipped to handle the business continuity programme. The group that is promoting the idea of WFR are exploring how organisations can take care of regulatory requirements. Experts are evaluating the issues of data protection, management of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) issues and other cyber theft challenges.
The biggest challenge of WFH option is data protection. It is believed that when employees work from home, it is harder for employers to supervise the handling of confidential information and data. Organisation and industry bodies should consider reviewing contracts of employment to ensure they have robust confidential information clauses, and that the employee is adhering to the clauses.
It isn’t reasonable to say everyone who has an internet connection, Zoom, or a Microsoft Teams account is good for remote work. Using only employer-approved devices for office work, only employer-approved video-conferencing facilities, accessing internet on a secure device, using secured wi-fi networks, restriction to open or download only secure sites, prohibition on downloading or saving of employer’s confidential information on personal devices, restricting access to confidential information, providing access to information to only those who work on data to perform their duties, etc, should be seriously considered.
The other challenge companies may face is performance evaluation and employee behaviour during work hours. Employers must make it clear through their policies what is a suitable and acceptable behaviour when working from home. Moreover, it is also important to evaluate the social impact angle of WFH. It is observed that WFH has enabled some individuals to change their working practices for the better, but in most cases, daily routines have gone for a toss. The working hours too got longer. It is critical for the HR to understand that an employee’s health and safety are the prime responsibility of an organisation, irrespective of WFH or office.
WFH is here to stay but its final shape will evolve with time. Several major companies, including Twitter, Facebook and TCS, have already announced a temporary or permanent shift to WFH, heralding the beginning of a new era in work culture.
This shift was desired and much needed for we’d have certainly faced the reality of WFH in the next decade. The pandemic has only accelerated the process. Organisations will now have to accept the WFH environment, realign their work culture, update process and technology, and rethink structuring their workforce.
Organisations need to come up with the process that manages the data protection requirements. To protect confidential information, employers should review their confidentiality policies and implement new technologies and statutory measures that specifically deal with WFH. WFH may result in more value in terms of equitable distribution of wealth, better inclusivity, improved diversity, more women employees, reduction in migration to metros, etc. The returns of WFH on the social equity front in very promising.
(The author is a New Media expert based in Bengaluru)
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