It took a pandemic for India’s tech industry to grasp the benefits of working from home

Despite its own gains from outsourcing, India’s IT sector resisted work from home even as the world embraced it. …

The Covid-19 pandemic has finally taught India’s over $200 billion information technology (IT) industry a lesson it should have learned many years ago.

The Indian IT sector resisted work from home for years even as the world embraced it. But in a year unlike any other, it was forced to finally accept the concept—and now might never return to its pre-pandemic obsession with employees’ sign-in and sign-out times.

“Given how far we have moved into the digital world it is highly unlikely that we will ever want to come back fully into the brick-and-mortar world that we were used to in the past,” Nasscom chairman UB Pravin Rao said during a press conference on Dec. 3. “This model is working fine. There is nothing better than proving it and we have proved it at scale.” As well as heading the Indian IT industry lobby, Rao is the chief operating officer of Infosys, one of India’s largest IT companies.

This is a stark departure from the norm. The sector, which employs over 4 million people, has been infamous for measuring employees’ productivity by face time at work. It is not unusual for IT companies in India to have a strict mandatory number of hours that employees must spend in the office—whether or not they have work to do.

In fact, industry veteran and Infosys founder Narayana Murthy has been a vocal detractor of work from home. In September, when most of the Indian IT industry had been operating remotely for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Murthy said, work from home should be a short-term solution.

“I believe the office is the place to work, home is the place to spend time with your loved ones. Mixing the two is not a good idea on a long-term basis,” he had said.

Stay flexible, retain women

The concept of working from home is so remote for the Indian IT industry that in March, even as coronavirus cases were on the rise, the country’s second-largest business process outsourcing firm, Genpact, forced its employees to come to work. “My boss even told me that working from home was a gimmick to shirk work and people world over were promoting it so they can chill at home,” a Genpact employee from Gurugram told Quartz in March.

Such a lack of empathy and dislike of flexibility have been a major deterrent to female participation in the Indian IT sector, especially in leadership roles. In 2018, less than 35% of the Indian IT workforce was female.

“There are many women I know who started out around the same time as me and when they had a baby they could not continue with their jobs. Their managers were pushy and did not support flexible hours. Eventually, these women quit their jobs,” said a senior-level employee of one of India’s largest IT firms, who is not authorised to talk to the media. “Most of them never got back to the workforce because once there is a gap in your resume it becomes very hard to look for good opportunities.”

The coronavirus pandemic, however, pushed the industry to a wall and it was forced to adapt.

Why work from home now?

On March 25, when the Narendra Modi government announced a mandatory lockdown across the country, the IT sector—barring a few verticals that were deemed essential—was forced to fall in line. The lockdown lasted nearly 70 days and was lifted in a phased manner starting June. To stay afloat during this time, the IT industry came up with solutions like buying new laptops for employees and renegotiating terms with clients to let projects be executed remotely.

Over the last nine months, companies have invested heavily in making the work from home model succeed and now they might want to stick to the trend, Rao of Nasscom said. Among other things, companies have invested in technology, collaboration tools, and cybersecurity, he added.

“This Covid experience of remote working has been a fantastic opportunity. Today, there is greater acceptability for people working remotely; not in offices but at their homes in different parts of the world. We are not seeing any letup in (the) quality or productivity of services. The feedback has been extremely positive,” he said.

The industry has also now realised that allowing work from home will help them find better talent. “It is a great opportunity for us to get access to talent wherever they are. Hopefully, this will also help in terms of diversification of talent in terms of getting more women into the workforce and looking at (the) workforce in smaller cities, (and) decongesting the cities,” he said.

Despite these positives, it’s unlikely that all Indian IT companies will vacate their offices forever.

Remote working is likely to become one of the ways in which the Indian IT industry operates, which currently includes practices such as onsite (working from a client’s location), offshore (servicing a client from one’s own location), and nearshore (working from a country closer to the client’s). ”It may not be the same set of people always working at home or the same set of people always working from the office,” Rao said.

The flexibility of remote working will also give the Indian IT industry an opportunity to engage with part-time workers. “This will be a tipping point for gig workers and gig economy becoming mainstream,” according to Rao.

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