The first wave of the pandemic led to drastic changes in the business environment across all sectors. Individuals, too, were impacted on a personal level by a variety of factors. Amidst the gloom and doom of 2020, companies were looking forward to the reunion of employees at their workplace around Q2 this year. Unfortunately, the second wave of the pandemic, much worse than the first, has made this close to impossible at the moment. With this comes the question playing around in most minds: will the work from home culture set in permanently?
Work from home for the long haul
With the current sentiment, leaders seem to believe that the work from home culture is here to stay. However, this might vary according to the nature of the work. Speaking about the likeliness of this, Anand Bhadkamkar, CEO, Dentsu International India, says, “It won't be a permanent culture. Businesses will operate at 60-40 capacity once things settle down. Companies have given up their premises and people have learned to operate remotely. Some of our brands, too, will work out of home, whereas the rest will come to the office.”
Several believe that the subjective and creative nature of brand communications merits physical interactions. Ramnik Chhabra, executive director, marketing, Motilal Oswal Financial Services, says, “We would most probably see a hybrid model evolving, with some roles within the marketing function being moved permanently to work from home.”
LV Navaneeth, CEO, The Hindu Group, on the other hand, is of the strong opinion that the WFH transition is a result of necessity and not design. Believing that the workforce would be back in the office by this time, he said, “Work from home will be on either a rotational basis or on the flexibility of choices given to employees. Offices will be staffed at 60-70% on an ongoing basis, but we might never return to 100% occupancy.”
While one year of remote working has its pros for both, employers and employees, experts also believe that it comes with its own set of downsides.
Priti Murthy, CEO, OMD India, believes that the adoption of innovative solutions for communications and collaborations has definitely taken a hit. “A newer model and its impact on companies would have to be assessed on a case-to-case basis once the scenario is more normalised, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders,” she adds.
Much has been spoken about the pros of WFH, however, it is a double-edged sword. Experts suggest that the culture has led employers to believe that their employees are only one call away. “At one level it has improved efficiency due to savings of time and effort to commute. However, WFH can also be stressful in terms of the ‘always available’ expectations that tend to creep in,” says Chhabra.
Nisha Singhania, co-founder, Infectious Advertising, agrees with Chhabra’s claims of saving the effort and time to commute. She states that in a city like Mumbai, people save anywhere from one to three hours of travel time, that they can now use for work and themselves.
Contrary to this, Navaneeth is certain that although people have more time, they don’t have a work-life balance. “Most people are unable to draw parallels between work and family time since they’re over-worked. Our mandate is to stop working beyond 6:30 PM, although editorial operations do work, albeit in shifts,” he says, sharing that he too would initially get work emails at 9:30 PM.
Backing Navaneeth’s notion, Bhadkamkar believes that the productivity level is a mix of pros and cons. He said, “The breaks in form of the travel-time and social conversations don’t come through, although they're much needed.”
Studies have shown the efficiency of work-from-home practices, which have been followed across the globe. However, some functions like news media cannot operate at zero per cent attendance at all times. For this reason, companies like The Hindu have kept their doors open, although employees can choose whether or not they want to go on-ground.
Navaneeth believes that the office is a safe environment and people’s behaviour is what has changed that. Stating that he goes to work every day and shuts off by 7 PM, he says, “People want to catch up with their colleagues. These are the times you really want to talk to someone and there's only so much that Zoom and Teams calls can do.”
Bhadkamkar points out that companies across all sectors are much prepared this time around, as compared to last year. “Processes are being aligned and deliveries are happening now. Remote working is about the way of life, which is well-settled now, with the use of productivity tools.”
Although essential services were allowed to function early in the lockdown, Motilal Oswal moved to a complete work from home environment. They opened shop once things got better. Chhabra said, “When things suddenly deteriorated again, we were able to pivot back to working from home overnight. This agility has also stood us in good stead. In today’s fluid scenario, things change suddenly and we need to adapt and evolve real-time.”
Singhania claims that WFH has worked well for her agency. “We invested in technology and ensured we could work smoothly and not risk the health of our employees,” she added.
Murthy, on the other hand, believes that companies need to embrace themselves for more volatility, and yet function in a manner that prioritises a people-first culture.
Chhabra also explains that trusting employees and building an in-house infrastructure helps. “Give them more flexibility than normal in terms of turnarounds and interact informally with the team to see how you can help when they are WFH,” he added.
Navaneeth also states that employees need help with their mental health too, since they go through fatigue and stress in these times. “There are people who can help with these things and it took us a while to learn that. The business and operational perspectives are well figured out and the learnings will come to good use.”
What a longer lockdown means for employees
The second wave has brought to mind several questions about hiring, layoffs and pay cuts, which happened ghastly across sectors last year. “We don't see a massive drop of a challenge at this point. If the lockdown goes on for too long, then advertising would be affected too. Layoffs and pay cuts are the last resort at this point since, over the past year, brands, companies and agencies have moved their supply chains,” says Bhadkamkar, pointing out that there are exceptions like the hospitality sector which have still been hurting.
Sharing a gleam of good news, Motilal Oswal not only prevented pay cuts and layoffs, but also gave their employees bonuses in April 2020. “Thankfully, capital markets have shown good growth in FY 20/21. However, the current pandemic situation is scary and the economic impact of large scale lockdowns is still to be gauged.”
Navaneeth is optimistic and adds, “I sense that the second wave will die fast and while we hope that recovery will be quicker, we will have a look at reality by the end of Q1.”
Hiring new talent
When asked about whether companies have changed their hiring process or what they look for in new talent, most of them were of the view that the process remains the same.
Bhadkamkar says, “Companies are asking for practical solutions like ‘hackathons’ – putting in problems and asking for creative solutions, where they’ll find brighter minds.”
However, the remote working situation has led to an advantage for companies, since the talent pool gets distributed geographically. Speaking about the importance of gauging future needs when hiring, Murthy said, “A more tech-savvy, agile and fluid workforce is needed for the current hour. Simultaneously, upskilling the resource pool is also imperative. We should look at enabling people to do their work flexibly and scope for talent that is collaborative.”
On the other hand, Navaneeth points out that the news media industry’s hiring is minimal and only in specific areas. He also sheds light on the cultural needs of new employees that get affected. “Even if you're not new to the kind of work, you're new to the culture of the organisation. What took 2-3 months for an employee to adapt to in a pre-Covid world, today takes five to six months, no matter how hard you try.”
Nevertheless, we need to lay emphasis on the advantages of the WFH environment that is here to stay, and focus on bettering our health, as Chhabra quotes a Hindi dialogue which says, “jaan hai toh jahaan hai” (If there’s life, there’s life).