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ET Back to Business: Blended-office version to redefine the workplace


The Economic Times brought together a diverse group of industry leaders to talk about the forces that are shaping and defining the ‘new normal’ at workplaces. The pandemic has changed a few things irreversibly as the world has realised that people can be reasonably productive working from home. What may emerge going ahead is a blended-office version, especially in technology-enabled sectors, where remote working can help save significant costs while enhancing productivity, according to the four-member panel at the ET Back to Business Dialogues. Edited excerpts of discussion with moderator TN Hari, head,HR, Big Basket :

Has the coronavirus outbreak permanently transformed the existing workplace? Are you seeing any new trends being triggered or current trends that are getting accelerated?

DEEP KALRA: The short answer is yes. There is an immediate transformation. Workspaces have moved home at least for most of India. People are not going to go to work yet unless they have to. Manufacturing has to go to work, but even in manufacturing, people are trying to enforce social distancing. Offices as we know it, right now, are mostly vacant. The norm is pretty simple — if you can manage from home, then please work from home because the risks and the potential downside of opening up are so high that if you take one step forward and then (it’s) few steps back. I see a hybrid model emerge. I see people coming in to work anywhere between two and four times a week.

So, blended work, blended office at home?
MANISH SABHARWAL: It is too early to say. I am a big believer that these kind of crises don’t create a new trend, they accelerate one. And, for the last 30 years, we have seen trends. Employment has shifted from being a lifelong contract to a taxicab relationship. The cognitive elite, like us, can work from home. But for 90% of the people in India, it is not work from home. And even for the cognitive elite, WFH has become living at work, and it is not that fun. That it will be more flexible is clearly on the cards, but I don’t think this is the end of employment, nor do I think this is the end of offices.


Remote working is not new —entire outsourcing industry and multinationals operating have all been used to some kind of remote working. What has worked and what has not worked in the last five months?
HEATHER EMSLIE: The ability to move from the work-office to home-office has been very simple from the technology perspective. However, technology is only one element of the WFH perspective as not every home has an office. Technology has been there and has made it easy for many companies. But then there is the physical element, which has been a challenge. The other challenge is with organisations quickly adopting videoconferencing technology to make sure that everyone could connect. These companies are no longer in control of devices and the network. Does this cause a potential security risk for us, they ask.

RAJEEV DUBEY: The first thing was that all of us discovered we could do much more than what we had thought while working from home. Second, it is very stressful. There is a complete erosion of work-life balance. We have discovered that it requires a lot of discipline, a lot of trust and the ability of command and control leadership to let go.


All economic development throughout the world, including India, has been on the back of migrant labour. Millions of migrant workers trekking back to hometowns on dusty roads became the face of Covid crisis in India. What changes do you see in the migrant labour landscape, and how do you see it impacting economic recovery? SABHARWAL: There are about 70-75 million migrants in India interstate, of which 30 million are dependents, so there are about 40-45 million in the labour force. About 4-6 million have gone home. So, while I appreciate the TV and the outrage, it is 10% of the migrants and many of them are already back. On back to normalcy, migrant labour is not the binding constraint. First, we need to know whether we are at the start, middle or end of the virus. On demand, we need to know whether consumers will be hedonistic or they will be frugal when the virus ends. I don’t think any economist can model that. So demand and virus are the two binding constraints for normalcy, migrant labour is not.

DUBEY: The question is not only of migrants, because migrants are a subset of what we call the informal workforce, which is 93-94%. The question really is how you make these people more productive. This productivity requires some investments to be made.


Why did it take a pandemic for people to realise that you don’t need to travel for two hours every day in bad traffic and assemble under one roof to get productive?
EMSLIE: People don’t like change and people like control. I was hearing stories of people who suddenly had to get to their desk at 8 ’ clock and leave their video on so that they could be monitored for working throughout the day. But that is becoming less of a concern now. We are hearing less of those stories and more of output in the day. The pandemic has caused us to change the way to look at how people work.

This pandemic has been different from other crises in the past. What impact is it having on us – cutting out conversation, cutting out socialisation but being reasonably productive?
DUBEY: There is almost a paradoxical situation where I find there is more of a social interaction now – but it’s happening virtually – than was happening earlier. So it’s not all bad news. The question is – how are we shaping those conversations and the collaborations that take place?

Now, can a virtual collaboration substitute for a need for physical interaction, and can people continue to remain locked up in their homes? I don’t think so… There will be a change – a kind of hybrid – where people come to work a

certain number of days. Still, clearly, it will not be a return to work as before, but at the same time, clearly, people have not overcome the basic human need for physical socialisation. How we balance it is critical. Mental health and wellbeing are highlighted in a big way here.


Will the pandemic and the WFH model increase women’s participation in middle and senior management? Will it reduce the number of drop-offs?
EMSLIE: Organisations that start adopting a flexible work environment will potentially start having more women in some of these middle and senior management positions. Some women hold themselves back from taking on those next-level roles often due to family commitments. Women who have access to that flexibility will start taking those senior roles in organisations.

KALRA: In our sector, it will help. A lot of people stayed away from the workforce or didn’t come back after maternity leave – it is going to be tremendous. This is going to be a big positive step for women at work. Technology throughout history has shaped work more than anything else. But there is a belief that artificial intelligence

(AI) is going to change the future of work like nothing before. Your thoughts…
SABHARWAL: We have to be very careful in applying this to India. It is very relevant for the countries at the frontier of productivity. If per capita income is $50,000, I think it matters. But for India – the nightmare is 45% of their labour force will generate 14% of their GDP. We can get to $10,000 per capita income irrespective of what happens in AI, ML, automation – it’s only land, labour, capital here.

KALRA: AI can be used very productively for areas where we have a backlog. We do not need to apply it to sectors where we have enough people but there are areas where we are far behind, we have huge backlogs which we can clear up. Let’s use it judiciously. Skilling becomes very important at this time. If we do it well, it will be our ally; if we don’t, it will further worsen our problems.

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