Till about 3 weeks ago coronavirus cases in India were low and most businesses were working as usual with certain caveats – employees were asked to reduce both domestic and international travel, limit meetings and adopt stringent hygiene standards.
As and when an office would have a coronavirus case, it’s premises would close for sanitization with its staff either quarantined or moved to WFH.
But since then, there has been a steady rise in covid-19 cases in India, and exponential rise in some other countries. WHO has declared it a pandemic and the only way to contain it for now is through quarantine and social distancing.
Country after country has announced lockdowns, including India. Several businesses have now moved to WFH as it is the only viable option to ensure employee safety and business continuity.
With an unprecedented work-from-home experiment setting across Indian cities, businesses are scrambling to manage the challenges presented by the suboptimal public infrastructure, legacies of their own outdated technology & processes and the psychological barriers of their more hierarchical structures.
According to Gartner, 54 percent companies in India do not have the requisite infrastructure to work from home. While it is easier for those who belong to the IT sector, the situation is getting increasingly difficult for those who work for non-IT companies and small-scale industries. Old laptops, poor network connectivity, no UPS backup, as well as lack of training in how to use collaborative tools, are some of the biggest challenges.
Industry response to WFH
IT services and BPO sector
The 190 billion US dollar IT services and BPO sector has been one of the first to adopt remote working.
On 16 March, Infosys said that it would extend work from home for all employees where possible. Wipro Ltd also said it has advised employees to work from home if feasible.
India’s largest IT company TCS, though constrained since it supports mission critical systems, has allowed 40 percent of its employees to work from home. Parallelly, it has taken several steps to minimise density in the offices and keep them extra hygienic and sanitised.
The start and end of each day is just like before with regular communication and synergy within teams and with clients via video conferencing. It continues to be challenging and we’re learning on the go, one day at a time with effective and ethical work practices virtually.”
Remote working policies have been made mandatory at global technology majors such as Twitter, Nokia and robotic process automation firm UiPath. All employees, including hourly workers, will receive reimbursement toward their home office set-up expenses.
Though it may seem easy for the IT sector to transition to WFH given their nature of work, there is a huge challenge. A rise in the number of employees adopting WFH means a rise in leak of sensitive information and data thefts. Additionally, the Department of Telecommunications has laid down rules that do not permit office virtual private networks to connect to home IT networks. On the request of large conglomerates, the DoT eased these rules till March 30.
India’s healthcare industry is under immense pressure, especially since most of them can’t afford to do remote work; they have to be physically present.
India’s largest drugmaker Sun Pharma which has a field force of 9,500 plus sales representatives, and covers over 400,000 doctors across the country, has encouraged employees to work from home. Use of virtual collaboration tools and digital technology is being adopted and wherever necessary, employees are working on rotation to ensure business continuity.
Cipla and Glaxosmithkline Pharmaceuticals have also asked their employees, including sales representatives, to work from home.
The manufacturing operations of these companies continue , since they have specific instructions from the government to continue operations. Most of these plants are using infrared thermometers to check the temperature of all employees on a daily basis apart from conducting random health checks on the shop floor. Besides, appropriate hygiene measures are implemented for employees to stay safe and healthy.
Sanjay Bhutani, Country Manager, Bausch & Lomb India shares with TBC. “All our employees generally have Laptops, Dongles, etc and are well-equipped to WFH already. It’s not a concern, however, it would be impacting where the employees need to come & work from office. In the Warehouse, we have implemented WFH on a rotational basis so as to maintain continuity of service to our customers and patients – it is all the more important for us being a healthcare Company,”
Pavan Choudary, CEO & MD, Vygon India, shared with TBC, “The covid crisis will accelerate dramatically the work from home economy which was already on its way.
In the medical technology sector manufacturing, supply & service chains will need some physical presence however HCW training & interface will increasingly go digital. Smart manufacturing will get a new impetus.
Vygon and several other leading companies I know of are establishing new protocols of work and conceiving new KPIs for virtual activity.”
Banking and Insurance
The first visible impact of COVID 19 on bank employees came earlier this month when a currency chest of State Bank of India in Kerala had to be shut after a coronavirus-infected person made a visit to open a non-resident Indian account and deposit cash. The entire staff of the currency chest is under quarantine till March 31.
To prevent a repeat of the Kerala situation, banks are looking at spreading the staff between the head office and disaster recovery sites that have the same technical capacity as their main sites.
Customers are being encouraged to use digital banking facilities. In addition, banks are setting up a Quick Response Team, which will provide regular updates to the top management on significant developments, and act as a single point of contact with regulators and agencies.
Axis Bank has invoked its emergency business continuity plan and asked two-thirds of employees in its headquarters to work from home. Deutsche Bank and DBS have asked some of their employees to not come to office.
Bajaj Capital Insurance Broking Ltd has over 600 employees spread across in about 120 branches. Vinod Sahgal, MD, Bajaj Capital told TBC, “We are an IT driven organisation. Accordingly, we have modified our IT system to enable employees to work from their homes . However, since we need to have physical contact with clients, we have ensured that all teams have at least 30% of their staff physically present in the office.”
According to reports, India’s automobile sector will have at least 25,000 office employees working from home for at least two weeks. These rules are mainly for those who have desk jobs. Those who work in factories are going about their daily jobs, but businesses are being extra cautious. These spaces are properly disinfected, plus sanitisers and masks are being distributed to all employees. Moreover, the biometric attendance system has been stopped and replaced with a punch card attendance system.
US auto major Ford has asked its 10,000 employees in India, except those in business-critical roles, to work from home with similar steps being taken by Fiat Chrysler India.
Mahindra & Mahindra, because of heightened concern on spread of coronavirus in Maharashtra, has decided to suspend the manufacturing operations at its Nagpur Plant with immediate effect and Chakan (Pune) and Kandivali (Mumbai) from 23rd March night onwards.
Meanwhile, all its offices across the country have already implemented Work from Home. Several other measures including highest standards of hygiene and promoting social distancing at all the offices and manufacturing locations across the country have been taken.
According to Mint, the company has also defined evacuation protocols and quarantine procedures, and created emergency quarantine rooms across its production units.
Volvo Motors, too, has announced WFH to ensure business continuity. The company has scheduled meetings via Microsoft Teams and Skype, and are also making use of Google Hangouts.
Tata Motors has announced that it is rapidly scaling down activities at its Pune facility to skeletal operations by 23rd March. The carmaker will be ready for plant closure by 24th March, if the situation warrants and remain shut till 31st March.
Hyundai India has announced a series of measures as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the country. Besides advising employees to WFH, the company has set up preventive thermal screening for its employees, and has asked dealer and vendor partners to strictly follow government advisories.
Unfortunately for automobile companies, these measures are being taken at a critical time of the transition from BS-IV to BS-VI and the companies are under pressure to meet annual targets.
Given the nature of the job, those involved in manufacturing can’t utilise the work from home facility. However several companies are doing their bit for the safety of their staff. Many have stopped access to their factories from visitors, their sales staff is working from home, and they’re having their employees wash their hands when they arrive, throughout the day, and before they leave.
Sundram Fasteners has asked factory employees to stagger lunch timings and not sit on adjacent tables. It has even emphasized the importance of maintaining a distance of four-six feet from other employees and supervisors on the factory floor. The company has a no-travel policy for a month and also advised employees to stay away from religious congregations.
Manu Ahuja, CEO & MD, Jubliant Industries, told TBC, “For our office staff WFH is BAU (Business as Usual). We are strictly following our work schedules and not using WFH as an excuse to drop productivity. Needless to add, without technology, wifi, network infrastructure this would never have been possible. Key steps we have taken:
- clear communication across levels
- strict adherence to calendars and meeting schedules
- assigning key responsibilities to Ensure smooth functioning of IT systems, networks and hardware
- using video conferencing ( especially Zoom), MS Teams and Skype
- E learning
- periodic updates to our suppliers and customers using technology
Challenges associated with remote working
While several organisations think they are prepared to allow employees to work from home seamlessly, that’s not the case. From lack of collaboration tools to a lack of interpersonal training on how employees should navigate remote work situations, organisations are struggling to meet the demands of remote workers.
Inadequate internet and power Infrastructure and high probability of possible data leaks over unsecured home networks are other concerns worrying businesses.
“There are many challenges – one is the infrastructural challenge,of having the requisite bandwidth and servers, at the company and the country level.
The second is security – when you’re working from home, hackers are going to have a field day. While many applications are fine, what happens to banking and insurance?
The biggest challenge is culture. You can’t meet face to face, you have to manage work without meeting people. That is a big shift from the way we were working. The tech companies are working better through this crisis than the non-tech companies. Not only because their dependence on human contact is limited, but also their staff is empowered differently,” says Jaspreet Bindra, Entrepreneur, Author, Thought Leader and Former Digital Transformation Advisor, Mahindra Rise.
Ankit adds, “Work from home as a policy is commonly followed by our teams in times of personal need but when we implemented self quarantine policy for the necessary folks, it seemed almost difficult to function. And a time like this where the entire office across all cities, including our Sales team, who are majorly on field, to work from home is something we never imagined!
No one knows how much longer this situation is going to persist but the one thing that has emerged from this crisis is the absolute need of technology!”
Business continuity plans
The situation also raises a pertinent question: Should businesses be prepared to handle uncertainty? Disasters, whether natural or man-made, or similar emergencies can crop up at any point – this makes it critical for companies to have a business continuity plan.
According to Mercer’s ‘Business Responses to the COVID-19 outbreak’ survey (it has insights from over 300 companies from 37 countries), only 24 percent of companies are in the process of drafting an initial business continuity plan. The survey also highlighted that 27.2 percent of companies presently have no business continuity plan.
By contrast, the reason many MNCs, such as JPMorgan, have been able to shift to work from home is because the ability of employees to work remotely has been part of contingency planning, which is tested and certified annually. (Mint)
Work going forward is expected to be very different from what it is now.
According to Jaspreet, “This crisis will further fuel digital transformation. People will use these tools – AI and blockchain – even more. Blockchain especially as it helps you decentralise securely at the greatest level.”
Kunal Shah, Founder & CEO, CRED, tweets – “Mandatory WFH for 7-8 weeks may cause some irreversible changes with this forced training where workplaces may become borderless and have multi-country teams. In WFH, H can be anywhere.”
Pavan adds, “Families will need readjusting. The home maker’s value could rise as she will help maintain privacy protocols and provide housekeeping services. The dining table will influence the time table.
This extensive shift in the place of work will also help us live more lightly on the planet.”
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