A year and a half ago, most organisations would have considered offices essential to their business, expecting all their employees to be at their desks each day. But as the pandemic dragged on, companies were forced to allow their employees to work from home – a largely frowned upon concept that existed only sporadically before the Covid-19 struck. However, business leaders have been surprised to learn that working from home has positive employee productivity. As opposed to the initial concerns that remote work erodes work productivity, the Mercer study shows that productivity has gone up after the pandemic with employees working remotely.
Twitter was the first major global company to announce in May 2020 about its permanent work-from-home plans—employees could continue working remotely/working from home/possibly anywhere else that made them happy and productive, forever. “Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs,” Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR, said in a blog post. Ever since, Twitter has been quietly demolishing its office culture, preparing for a future where most of its employees will permanently work from home, and experimenting with building ways to better support its employees in the face of uncertainty.
Another study from Microsoft points out that most workers have adapted remarkably well to work from home/anywhere – 74% of Indian employees expressed a desire for more flexible remote work options. But, at the same time, 73% of them also crave more in-person time with their teams.
Working from her home base in the small town of Cheog, Neha Bisht, a software developer, doesn’t miss Gurgaon’s long commute and traffic. A year ago, she traded her office in the company’s Gurgaon’s headquarters for this Himalayan home office 400 km away, surrounded by lush green mountains and a monitor large enough to see her coworkers and the entire team all at once. She has no plans of returning to Gurgaon.
Bisht’s remote office represents a necessary experiment to keep businesses running amid the COVID‑19 crisis. Still, it has evolved into a new work phenomenon where employees became accustomed to flexible work options during the pandemic and expected flexibility going forward. A Gartner study points out that four out of ten employees could leave if the employer insists on a ‘hard return’ to entirely on-site work without any flexible work arrangements.
The inference is clear: flexibility is the new workplace currency, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted. Jennifer Christie believes flexibility for workers is the “Industrial Revolution 4.0” because it will radically change the way people work. India Inc., along with the rest of the world, is at the brink of workplace disruption – the large shifts are changing the way we work, how we work and from where we work. So, like last year’s abrupt shift to remote work, the move to a hybrid work model — a blended office model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work remotely — doesn’t come as a surprise.
Flexibility is a double-edged sword, but “hybrid” is the way forward
Workers have always clamoured for this newfound flexibility in their work. However, the downside to all this flexibility is a “work-life blur” where people are working longer hours, attending more meetings, and employees’ mental health is being left vulnerable. It’s challenging to find a work-life balance when the lines between the two are blurred. A survey from Microsoft found that 54 per cent of workers feel overworked, and 39 per cent say they feel exhausted while working from home. This has created concerns around the longer-term effectiveness, utility, and feasibility of the work from home model.
However, with a large-scale vaccine rollout underway and declining COVID-19 infections, Indian companies are slowly heading toward a ‘hybrid workplace’ instead of making a full retreat from remote work. The hybrid working model has emerged as an acceptable way to get businesses back on track and cater to the new needs and expectations of the workforce while also enabling a safe and flexible return to the office.
After 18 long months, our leaders @Wipro are coming back to the office starting tomorrow (twice a week). All fully vaccinated, all ready to go – safely and socially distanced! We will watch this closely. pic.twitter.com/U8YDs2Rsyo
— Rishad Premji (@RishadPremji) September 12, 2021
In India, big names like TCS, Infosys, and HCL have recently ended their work from home policy for their employees and opted for the hybrid working model. Wipro’s senior leadership resumed work from the office twice a week from September. Kotak Mahindra Bank plans to call 90 per cent of its workforce to the office by the end of 2021. ITC, Britannia, Coca-Cola, Mars Wrigley, Icra, and L&T Infotech are allowing their employees to return to the office by choosing the mixed approach of hybrid working. Social media giant Facebook is preparing to open its offices in India this month. As per Aon’s Future of Work Survey, more than 50 per cent of the workforce of 1,350 firms across 39 sectors, employing approximately 10-15 lakh people, is expected to return to offices by the end of this year.
Employees in these companies have personally shown an interest in coming back to work. According to Economic Times, about 50% of employees in India prefer a hybrid work model. Two out of three office workers prefer a hybrid work model. Only 16 per cent of workers in India say they’d like to spend their whole week at the office, and about one in five workers say they’d work full-time at home. To prepare, 73% of business leaders said they were considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments (Microsoft Index report).
Hybrid work is the biggest shift to the way we work in a generation. Today, we’re announcing new features in Teams and Microsoft 365 designed to level the playing field for all employees, no matter where they’re working from – remote or at the office. https://t.co/rZTHXr8SK0
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) June 17, 2021
In a conversation with The Wall Street Journal, Google CEO Sundar Pichai discussed his company’s hybrid work policy where between 20% and 30% of Google’s employees have voluntarily returned to the office already. In May 2020, Google had moved to a three-day office and two-days remote working arrangement. He emphasised the importance of welcoming employees’ opinions on having a remote, in-person, or hybrid work model. “There has to be a dialogue of respect on both sides, I think, but I think CEOs need to embrace the fact that in the modern workplace, employees want to have a say in where they work,” he said.
Organisations will need to remodel themselves to work scenarios according to employees’ needs and goals. The office will still exist, but its purpose will change. Offices are more likely to become the hubs of innovation and social interaction, for example, informal social gatherings, the orientation of new employees, hosting customers, collaboration of creative work, town halls, learning technical skills, which still require a physical shared space in which employees can collaborate effectively.
Whichever way you look at it, there is a dismantling of a traditional workplace and a reconstruction of a new workspace. But people are still anxious about returning to the office or feel conflicted. A hybrid approach where offices will be geared toward collaborative work, encompass flexible work policies, provide innovative, safe, and adaptable solutions to accommodate the needs of their employees, provide tools for employees to create, innovate and work together to solve business problems, address the pandemic’s toll on employees’ physical and mental health, and make D&I a corporate priority will help people return and motivate them to stay for the long-term.
But going back to the office is a big challenge. Keeping in mind the infection risks due to Covid-19, there are several touch points that will be crucial before companies feel confident to open up offices at full capacity. Big companies in India have clear guidelines and timelines to get their entire workforce vaccinated.
Undoubtedly, hybrid workplaces are set to become the next big thing globally—including in India. But it seems that organisations won’t converge on a single workplace model; instead, they will go in many different directions as they seek out models best suited to their business needs. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, one thing has become clear – with the future of work centred on hybrid, companies will have to offer some sort of remote work option. There is still so much uncertainty. Employers and employees will have to wait and watch – the experience could be different for each. But two things are clear: work will never be the same, and hybrid and remote work models are here to stay.