Soon after internet giantYahoo took away employee freedom to work from home, Indian companies are slowly voicing hitherto unexpressed concerns about productivity losses such flexibility may cause. ”Flexitime is a utopian concept that is not going to help anyone,” says K Ramkumar, Executive Director, ICICI Bank.
“Whatever is not natural to the market and commerce, will not work. Customer is the king.” India Inc has mostly celebrated work from home or remote work as a best practice to attract and retain talent. Hardly anyone has yet voiced concerns of productivity losses such practices may cause.
“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” a Yahoo memo announcing the rollback observed. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” it added.
Some HR heads of companies that have given employees such flexibility are now beginning to echo Yahoo’s concerns. None of them have yet moved to curb the practice, nor have they given any indication that they may consider such a move. “In India, unlike the west, employees do not have a separate office space in their homes. In that way, productivity could get hampered if one works from home,” says Saurabh Govil, vice-president HR, Wipro.
The company offers flexi-work on a case-to-case basis. In the US though, Wipro has been asking its people to come to office, especially those who do not have to stay at customer’s site. “Coming to office helps in developing a culture that is crucial; even small water cooler conversations are important,” Govil adds. Srimathi Shivashankar, AVP & Head – Diversity & Sustainability, HCL Technologies, says working out of home in India is quite challenging.
“If you ask me whether Indian homes give women/men this kind of work ambience then my answer is no,” she says. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, extended family members have very little understanding that working from home is equivalent to working at office and that the individual should be supported to stay productive.
Secondly, the household support staff do take holidays, leaving the individual working from home with household chores. Thirdly, when it comes to telecommunication/calls/online meetings, Indian households with noisy surroundings have a good distance to traverse vis-a-vis our western counterparts. Fourthly, network connectivity and security is still an issue in many cities. Lastly, power cuts across Indian states also act as a dampener on productivity. HCL Technologies introduced flexiwork options one-and-a-half year ago despite these challenges. Unlike 5-6 years ago, when such flexibility first found its way into Indian workplaces, the pressures of the recent economic slowdown may also be forcing companies to reconsider their assumptions.
“Now companies have other concerns like top line and bottom line. They are insisting on ownership and accountability from their employees,” says Saundarya Rajesh, founder president, AVTAR Career Creators & FLEXI Careers India. Mahindra & Mahindra, which employs 150,000 employees, says such flexibility works only when there is a structure around it. It works only where one can measure productivity and performance, says Prince Augustin, EVP – Group Human Capital & Leadership Development at Mahindra & Mahindra.
“If work is more individual-oriented then he should be allowed to work from home because otherwise you may end up losing the person. Also it definitely helps to attract women employees as well,” adds Augustin. However, some like Infosys still root for work from home. “Our experience has been that when used appropriately, such interventions aid productivity and help employees contribute their best,” says outgoing HR head Nandita Gurjar.
Barring a handful of progressive companies, work from home remains a hazy concept in India. At a CEO Forum last week, Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms, a diversity hiring and back-to-work specialist, was at pains to explain work from home concept to the CEO of an e-commerce start-up. The assumption of the CEO was that work from home is not a serious approach work and that people who opt for it, want a lighter job.
“In India, work from home is a fearful concept for most organisations,” says Chahal. For every five job applications that Fleximoms gets, it receives 25-30 applications for work from home jobs. “By overlooking this talent pool, companies are doing themselves a disservice,” she says. Interweave Consulting, a firm that works with companies on work life balance and diversity, says that it is a complicated process and can not be a free for all. The firm has advised IBM, Cadbury and HSBC on the same.