The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have made work from home an imperative for several industries. Having said that, some job profiles lend themselves to working from outside the office more than others do. In a conversation moderated by K. Bharat Kumar, Ashwini Deshpande and Ramkumar Ramamoorthy discuss whether work from home is likely to become a constant even in a post-COVID future. Edited excerpts:
Prof. Deshpande, you have said that the bigger question is how long the pandemic itself would take to exit our lives. Where do you see this going?
Ashwini Deshpande: It’s doubtful if the pandemic itself would go away, say, in a couple of months. If we are talking about changes in work arrangements over the next two years, that’s a pretty long time for us to have a change in our work patterns. At least for the next two years, as we go through the cycle of lockdowns and containment, we will go in and out of work from home. What will happen once this is completely behind us? It’s a little bit hard to speculate, but yes, the possibility that some kinds of work can be done from home is now here to stay.
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy: While much of the focus seems to be on work from home, it’s actually work from anywhere. In the last 12-18 months, for example, I have worked from the office, from home, from hotels, coffee shops, a hospital, beaches, marriage halls, moving cars and airplanes. We will get to a mode where people could potentially work from anywhere based on the job that they do at a given point in time. But, this is not new; this has been in vogue in the IT industry for many years.
So, if you step back and look at about two or three decades back, people went to where software was developed, primarily in the U.S. the U.K., Europe. Subsequently, software development moved to where people with appropriate skills, advancements in telecommunication, network and bandwidth, collaboration, software tools and related technologies as well as security protocols, were. Every other industry has also adopted remote working in varying degree. While this comes naturally to services industries, including retail, healthcare, education, entertainment. it is harder to do it in industries that need a physical location or a presence.
I also use the words ‘varying degree’ because manufacturing companies, even today, adopt this for certain types of activities. Speaking of the automobile industry until recently cars were sold only through distributors with physical stores where cars were on display. People could go to the stores, touch and feel the car, get inside the car, take a test drive and so on. When MG Motor launched the Hector brand in India, they attempted to sell cars largely online. Hyundai is attempting this with click to buy. Some of these companies are able to simulate the same experience. With uneven distribution of skills across the world, this phenomenon has been gaining momentum for the last few years. COVID-19 will accelerate and catalyse it further.
Ashwini Deshpande: A lot of the services are difficult to deliver from remote. Teaching, to a certain extent, can be done remotely. But it’s just not of the same quality as teaching inside the classroom. A lot of other services are not actually conducive to being delivered remotely. I don’t think that the traditional workplace is going to completely die out. It might undergo certain kinds of transformation. Maybe [there won’t be] thousands of people working in one building.
Post-COVID, would work from home aggravate the divides already present today — like gender, migrant vs. native, etc.?
Ashwini Deshpande: If a family has only one computer, who is going to get priority to use that computer? It’s highly probable that the man would get priority. [Work from home] will certainly worsen the gender divide; it will also worsen the older-versus-younger divide because youth unemployment is an issue and if that one computer in the household is going to be going to be monopolised by the father, then others are not going to be able to use it.
Third is the notion of Internet connectivity. We know that that’s heavily differentiated by where you live, rural-urban location, which State of India you belong to, the neighbourhood, etc.. The other part of the story is the combination with all kinds of household and domestic needs. And here, unless there’s a major change in social norms in the coming two years, women who are more responsible for delivering domestic work are going to be that much more hard pressed to combine it withr̥ workplace responsibilities.
As regards migrants, if there was enough work available in localities where they resided, not everybody would need to migrate. So, I think that there is the much larger issue of availability of jobs and the matching of the supply with the demand for workers. Certain States are more able to provide better quality jobs than other States. And if workers are not going to be able to migrate, it affects the overall distribution.
So, industry could be guilty of aggravating such divides…
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy: Unlike the prior waves of technology, which were largely monolithic, digital technologies today are democratising the way people use them. They create a platform for greater diversity and inclusion, with greater mobile and bandwidth penetration, more smart boards coming into classrooms and in rural areas. The question is, are we using it for greater inclusion or will we end up creating a deeper wedge in society? We have a great opportunity to become more inclusive. The government has a role to play. Some good steps have been taken, including last-mile connectivity taken to the villages through BharatNet. The implementation of some of these backbones could be very patchy across different States. At least in rural south India, they’ve made some meaningful investments in technology.
Companies also have a very important role to play. If you take the Cognizant example, we have about 2,00,000 employees in India with about 20,000 in tier-two locations such as Coimbatore and Mangaluru. About 38-39% of our India workforce comprises women but in our tier-two locations women constitute about 50% of the workforce. We have employees who volunteer to teach in schools in the hinterland of India. Our employees or their spouses who are in the U.S. actually teach English, Math and the basics of computing to students in villages over Skype. I do agree that we need to do this at scale. And we need to institutionalise some of these.
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Ashwini Deshpande: So far, the tone of this conversation is implicitly assuming that work from home is a really good idea; that it’s something to hold on to and transmit to the future. I want to put a little bit of a question mark on that. Other than social divides, there are other dimensions to this problem also. There is something to be said for actual human-to-human contact. Yesterday, I was at a seminar online. Normally, a seminar would have tea/coffee breaks, we talk to each other, we bounce ideas off each other. [Part of] the joy of attending a seminar is [with respect to] the social angle. Work from home eliminates that almost completely. That’s a very big negative.
The second part is that the home is not always a very happy place for everybody. Homes can also be centres of abuse. That’s the elephant in the room that we never talk about, because we always focus on safety outside the home. For many women and children, the home is the most unsafe place. And by forcing people to be inside the home, we are really forcing them to be inside with their abuser. The pandemic has actually brought about this phenomenon which the UN Women has called a shadow pandemic.
Third, in education, one of the things that a college environment does is that it erases the socio-economic differences between the students when they come into the classroom; with online classes, we actually get a little glimpse of their homes, and suddenly the class divide becomes apparent.
Would it be too idealistic to expect industry to move to where the migrants are? It could be factories, R&D centres or labs moving to the hinterland…
Ashwini Deshpande: If that could happen, that might not be a bad thing. I’ve spoken against the problem, now let me say something in favour of it. All this time, because women would drop out of the job market either completely or would negotiate with their employers to have a more flexible arrangement, women were stigmatised for doing that, because it was seen as an insufficient commitment to their work.
But one of the things that the work from home has done is that it has shown that working from home doesn’t mean that you’re less committed to the work part and more so to the home part, which is what was always assumed about women. I hope employers can see that women are just women who want to do both, just as men should be doing both. And that they are not less committed to the work. And third, iIf men realise they need to chip in and help domestically because now they’ve been at home and seen just how much work there is to be done on an everyday basis at home. I think if we have these three outcomes, it will be a big, positive impact of the pandemic, having forced us all into work from home and finally, if the work itself moves to where the migrants are. I think that’s a good thing.
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Also, just as there can be discrimination within the home, there can be discrimination even at the workplace. Some people might say, ‘it’s better for me to work from home, because now I don’t have to face the daily insults that I used to face earlier in office’.
But I think on balance, human beings are social creatures. A lot of the work we do in the university is just, you know, sitting in the coffee house bouncing ideas, talking to each other, learning from each other. In education, a lot of the learning happens outside the classroom. Online teaching closes that channel completely.
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy: The real big topic is about greater flexibility. Sometimes, we tend to get a little binary and look at some of these structural shifts or changes in an ‘either-or’ mode, instead of an ‘and’ mode. The physical spaces won’t go away completely; we will see the proportion of office as a space and its usage undergo a change. But it’s too early to call out what the ratios would be. It will still be a physical-digital world. Multiple models will emerge. In some respects, we are shorting human imagination here. ‘Hoteling’ is a concept many large corporates have started, where people can dynamically book a seat, a cafeteria slot or a meeting room and use it as you do it with a concierge. Co-working spaces may emerge in interior places too. Some of these could potentially start creating satellite or small office-home office kind of an environment. Maybe it’s a big opportunity for realtors to start thinking about an entire block or an entire floor just being created for co-working. There could be all kinds of hub-and-spoke workplace models that could come up. This could be clusters based on a given industry.
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At a recent seminar by the MCCI in which about 300 Principals of engineering colleges in T.N. participated, there was a discussion around whether every educational institution needed a physical lab at all. In education, could we not have a common lab in every district or town just as we have a common library; wherein students can perhaps go home on short vacation, still use the labs locally? There are certainly going to be challenges; not everybody has a well-defined home office; there’s a big difference between corporate-grade Net bandwidth and home grid bandwidth.
As to the final point the professor touched upon, that’s extremely important. Innovation and new ideas come from bouncing off thoughts, ideas and having discussions in an informal setting. We are approaching the new era; we need not reset the world using the templates we currently have. Many of these challenges can be overcome or surmounted, by reimagining every atomic process and creating newer ways of delivering the same experience, whether it’s an employee experience or customer experience in a differentiated fashion. I think the operative word is reimagining. Do not attempt to retrofit or superimpose an existing process or a template to the new era. A lot of things will have to be reimagined. So if you stay put at home and keep working before your monitor, it’s important that you take control over your schedule. How you organise yourself, how you schedule your hours is extremely important. And in the process, it’s important for you to schedule analogue breaks, set aside time to escape from all forms of digital screens, give your eyes, neck, shoulder, back the much needed rest, schedule a few other activities to indulge in. I think we are once again trying to use the traditional template. When I looked at the last two months that I’ve been working from home, I’ve actually had greater flexibility. I have seen people in my apartment complex walking the dog during lunch hour. People can relocate closer to ageing parents; completely exit cities and work in a location with a lower cost of living. So, while we traditionally focussed on women joining the workplace, I’m even more gung-ho about certain other categories of people joining the workplace, people with physical or learning disabilities.
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Stay at home itself could give rise to mental health problems. Whose responsibility is it to address this issue? individuals may need help with maintaining mental health. Whose responsibility is it? Governments have so far let some industries succeed by not interfering. But going forward, will the government have a far more intensive, pervasive role to play here? Or would corporates take up that mantle?
Ashwini Deshpande: Within the household, if gender norms of sharing work don’t change, it means that for the woman there is really no break. It’s 24/7 working, whether for our office work or the children or the home… it just never ends. Earlier at least, you could step out and the time you were commuting helped. Though the commuting might have been tough, at least it was giving some respite to the women. I do hope that increased possibilities of employment for women will go hand in hand with changes in the gender workload sharing norms inside the house. Which can happen by the way, because with the World Wars, there is evidence in Europe that gender norms for sharing work in a house did change.
It is also true that going out could be reassuring. If you have any issues at work, you have an outlet at home; if you have issues at home, you have an outlet at work. When work and home get combined, there is no place to unburden. You could feel very hemmed in. It could happen to anyone, not just women. That’s a huge mental health concern we should be cognizant about. Already people are becoming very individualistic and stuck to their screens. Work from home is going make us less social. I see that as a huge concern particularly for children growing up… their ability to have playdates, visit grandparents or neighbours, uncles and aunts visiting…
How do you build trust in a culture where landing up in office is seen as part of your commitment to work?
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy: Trust, governance and ethics are even more important in the newly defined context; they are the currency of the new era. Building trust takes some time because it’s not merely putting out certain policies and procedures. It’s how organisations walk the talk. We can build it. As an example, 20-30 years back, many of us kept cash and jewellery at home; later a bank locker was perceived safer. In corporates, data used to be stored in computers inside the office premises. Now companies are comfortable moving it to the public cloud. Employees need to be given true autonomy rather than micromanaging their work remotely; we need to promote a sense of belonging with clearly defined goals, and accommodate their needs and schedules. Even the informal settings can be brought about digitally. We need to reimagine as to how some of these things could be done.
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If more work from home happens, would the perks enjoyed by employees actually come down?
Ashwini Deshpande: Flexibility and insecurity are two sides of the same coin. So what can be seen as flexibility in a good context can equally lead to vulnerability and insecurity in another context. For industrial workers, the changes in labour laws are completely in the direction of removing any protection for minimum wages or fixed hours of work… things that protect workers in terms of overtime work, etc. If employers say we will give you security, but also flexibility, that, of course, is great.
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy: Progressive employers will always lead the way and ensure they are employment-friendly. In India, about 92 million people are going to enter the workforce between 2020 and 2030. In the next 10 years, we need to ensure that the employment climate in the country is good for this to happen. And if we don’t create that framework, that could have far-reaching consequences. When the Prime Minister announced the ₹20 lakh crore relief package, he also spoke about making structural reforms in the country in four key areas: land, law, labour and liquidity. Labour is one area that needs a lot of attention. It’s a little too early for us to discuss the impact on perks in the medium to long term.
As soon as the lockdown was announced, and Cognizant had to shift a massive number of people to the remote working model, to show gratitude to our employees and to help them transition to this new reality, we actually gave our employees up to the associate level a 25% raise in their base salary in May, covering roughly about 1,30,000 or 2,00,000 employees. We also reimbursed the cost of bandwidth, provided many of them with dongles and UPS etc to support them through the transition.
I just recollect an interesting Gallup poll that was done in the U.S. a couple of years back where about a certain percentage of those polled said that working remotely, at least for some time during the year, was an option they would take up even with lesser pay.
Anything else you both would have liked to have dwelt upon?
Ashwini Deshpande: No, I think it’s been pretty comprehensive and I only hope that the optimistic scenario outlined by Mr. Ramkumar actually holds and that we come out of this with some good lessons going forward and transform workplaces towards being better for workers and eliminate some dimensions of discrimination. If that were to happen, that would be a huge step ahead for us as, as an economy and society.
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy:This is a perfect opportunity for us to bridge Bharat and India. I think we shouldn’t short human imagination here. The true success lies in the speedy implementation of some of these opportunities at scale. COVID has accelerated some of the things that would have otherwise taken a number of years to fructify. Let’s look at the silver lining here and make the best out of the opportunities that it presents to every one of us whether it’s the government, industry, individuals or society at large.
Ramkumar Ramamoorthy is Chairman and Managing Director of Cognizant India; Ashwini Deshpande teaches at the Ashoka University.