MUMBAI – Percy Master was a worried man when India declared a countrywide lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Today, the 51-year-old general manager at Godrej Security Solutions, part of a Mumbai-based conglomerate with a US$5 billion turnover during normal business times, now sees a coronavirus upside – one that may outlive the pandemic.
He, like millions of Indians and others worldwide, have turned the health crisis into an opportunity by leaving his locked down office behind and working from home instead.
“Its turned out to be smooth, convenient and faster, contrary to our initial apprehensions,’’ said Master about working from home during a lockdown.
“Work efficiency so far has been better as we save plenty of energy and time and avoid frustrating daily commutes. And one works without distraction usually typical of any office,’’ he said.
Master expects the 123-year-old Godrej Group, with interests spanning personal healthcare products, real estate, agriculture and home appliances, to consider adopting new work from home (WFH) policies after the health emergency passes.
Godrej is not alone in making the shift. The company has joined hundreds of Indian software and other technology developers in adopting the practice, one that promises to cut costs and enhance efficiency in unforeseen and untested ways.
That’s true for even some of India’s most traditional firms, where office cultures are deeply engrained.
Harsh Goenka, chairman of the RPG Group, another major conglomerate with interests in infrastructure, information technology, pharmaceuticals, tea and tires, confirmed to Asia Times his company’s Covid-19 influenced plans to allow employees to work from home.
It’s arguably been an easier transition for technology-oriented companies, many of which have already told staff to plan to work from home until at least the end of July, even as the government aims to lift lockdown measures by May 4.
TCS, Infosys Technologies and Wipro, India’s top software developers, all say they have transitioned relatively seamlessly from office to home work.
TCS, for one, has already formalized a “25 x 25” switch-over, a coronavirus initiated corporate restructuring that will allow three of every four of its 449,000 employees to work mainly from home by 2025.
It expects the policy to result in a 25% improvement in throughput, due to time saved in commuting, savings on real estate, reduced maintenance costs and even better negotiated salaries. It could also allow for the hiring of more women, many of whose mobility is limited by at-home family obligations, and thereby expanding the talent pool.
The strategy also builds in a social distancing hedge against a resurgence of the virus and a lack of clarity on when a vaccine may be developed and made cheaply available for mass inoculation, including in the developing world.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major game-changer, making WFH [work from home] a respectable and even altruistic decision,’’ said Anarock, a real estate services company, in a media statement.
“Companies can save a lot of revenue on office space occupancy. WFH can be a major productivity enhancer as employees save the time which they would ordinarily spend on daily commutes. It can significantly boost employee well-being.’’
Analysts already envision enhanced corporate margins derived from lower overhead costs and more dynamic and flexible ways of technology-enabled working.
“Running expenses of a regular office such as real estate, electricity, air conditioning, security, and pantry add to expenses irrespective of the number of staff present at any point of time,’’ says Master.
To be sure, the shift from office to home work won’t be seamless for all Indian companies, due to the limitations of now suddenly overloaded broadband networks and other information technology restraints, executives and analysts say.
There is also the potential for pushback, both from real estate interests and government regulators.
Authorities could, for example, tweak municipality rules that bar running offices from homes. While individuals working from home do not fall clearly in that regulatory category, frequent meetings of staff members held in a particular worker’s home could be interpreted as falling afoul of residential rules.
Property developers may also seek new regulations to prevent a sudden and sharp fall in office space occupancy. Several property laws, municipal taxes, electricity, water and sewage charges are different for residential and office blocks – all of which could be leveraged to curb WFH after the pandemic.
Corporate savings could also come at the expense of employees. Firms, for instance, could be tempted to trim perks they now provide for staff working from offices including medical and accident insurance, pantry services and even gym facilities.
Debjani Ghosh, president of Nasscom, an association of Indian software companies, tweeted on Tuesday about a meeting she had with the government’s information technology department on how to facilitate work from home as a long-term option for employers and employees.
“If done right, it can throw up tremendous opportunities for both,” she tweeted.