Is office essential for work? Return to office is a minefield, employees & employers are negotiating

According to the roster they drew up, J Vinayaka’s firm expected him to turn up at office only in September. But the 25-year-old Android developer had no intention of waiting another six months to visit the workplace he had joined — virtually — a year ago. So, soon after his office in a Bengaluru tech park reopened its doors in April, Vinayaka was there, walking through a colourful arch that said, “Happy 2B Home, Together as One”, past a recreational area with balloons and foosball tables and posing at a photo booth with the company logo, holding up a sign saying #BestDayEver.

As far as rolling out the red carpet for employees returning to office (RTO) goes, this might pale before what tech titans like Google in the Bay Area are planning (a private concert by pop star Lizzo awaits, reports The New York Times) but Vinayaka was bowled over. “They gave me all these welcome goodies — a company mug, sweets, cosmos plant seeds. It was awesome,” says the engineering graduate. But despite the warm fuzzy feeling of being in office and his genuine joy at meeting and chatting up colleagues from his and other teams, the Andhra native will be heading back to his hometown of Kurnool and intends to work from there till September. When remote work ends, he hopes he can work from home (WFH) at least some days of the week. “I like the hybrid model, where you can come if you want to and not if you don’t,” he says.

Having spent one day a week at the NCR office of his Big Four firm since mid-March, associate Varun Singh (name changed on request) is not convinced of the utility of even the occasional visit. “For my team, there is no point being in office as our work can be done from anywhere. We are going solely for the optics because the leadership wants to project a certain image,” says Singh, 27. To add to his chagrin, all the pandemic hiring has led to a space crunch. “I don’t have my own desk,” he says. But what about the lunch-time camaraderie and water-cooler chats some wax eloquent about? For Singh, it’s not worth the effort of the commute. “Nor am I getting as much work done as I do from home.”

With the Omicron surge ebbing and the bulk of their workforce vaccinated, many companies are asking staff to return to office. But who all should come, when, how often and how to convince employees of the point of it all is a minefield companies here, like their peers across the world, are gingerly navigating.

While the last two years have busted the myth that productivity hinges on being in office, the management view in many firms is that physical presence is important to foster innovation and company culture, improve collaboration and create a sense of belonging after two years of WFH. All this, they hope, may also stem attrition, which, in certain sectors like IT, are at record levels. Human resources teams are thus working overtime to make an event out of the “first day in office”, managers have been given budgets to take teams out for meals and your LinkedIn feed is probably awash with shiny, happy “#BackToOffice” videos. Some firms have also reached out to counsellors to ease employees’ anxieties over the return, says Meeta Gangrade, COO of employee assistance firm 121help.net.

But conversations with employees, employers and experts in recruitment and organisational behaviour reveal that the incentive people prize above all else is the flexibility to choose when to go to office, which the pandemic unexpectedly bestowed on many white-collar staff for the first time. Even those enthusiastic about going to office are less so about doing so every single working day. As Debolina Dutta, professor of practice — organisational behaviour & HRM, IIM-Bangalore, puts it, “Now that they (employees) have tasted blood, they don’t want to give that up.”

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Some Tread Softly, Others Less So

This desire for flexibility is not confined to Gen Z. Mansee Singhal, rewards consulting leader at Mercer India, saw this when she visited the premises of a client. Pre-pandemic, it was a large campus abuzz with activity. But now, not more than 15% of the leadership was coming in since it was voluntary, the HR team told her. “If anything, the younger employees seem keener to come to office, having missed the office vibe and conversations with friends at work,” says Singhal.

Gayatri Sathiyan would agree. The 23-year-old is in the midst of relocating from Mumbai to Bengaluru for her new job though the company offers hybrid and remote work options. As someone who graduated amidst the pandemic, she has mostly worked remotely till now and is looking forward to making friends at work and interacting with managers and the leadership. “I’ll definitely miss the convenience of remote working, where you are your own master when it comes to your time. And many don’t want to get out of the comfort zone they’ve got into over the last two years. But a lot of my peers are also eager to build connections in the real world right now and work from an office or a co-working space,” says Sathiyan.

The sense of control that flexible working hours give is an attraction for employees, agrees social psychologist Anna Chandy. “But some have also said they would like to go back to the office so there’s no mixing of professional and personal lives,” she says. The boundary setting is a perk Hena Mehta, cofounder of fintech startup Basis, is appreciating anew on Day 2 of the company’s trial of being in office two days a week, despite the traffic being “a time sink!” “An office helps you separate work from your personal life — it helps you focus better. I’m seeing that particularly as a new mom,” she says, while also adding that WFH had eased her transition back to work from maternity leave.

According to recruitment site Indeed, employees across categories are comfortable with some degree of flexibility, with the portal seeing a 17.5% increase in searches for remote/flexible work in October-March. Also, a survey by Indeed revealed there is a gender skew, with more women seeking opportunities that offer hybrid and remote work. “There is a strong preference among women for jobs that offer flexibility, with 60% of women job seekers looking at remote and hybrid work options, while for men, it’s 20%,” says Sashi Kumar, head of sales, Indeed India.

Companies large and small are in experiment mode. Some have set organisation-wide mandates to come in two or three days a week, while others are letting teams and managers thrash out the details. “Except those who need to be physically present like shop floor employees, all others are working hybrid or are on 100% WFH, if their role allows it,” says S Venkatesh, group president-HR, RPG Enterprises. FMCG major Marico has rolled out a hybrid work model which, according to CHRO Amit Prakash, “allows our members to shape their work around their lives. We have also outlined a case-by-case location flexibility option for remote work”.

IT behemoths Infosys and TCS are looking at continuing with the hybrid model. Accenture is setting up a presence in new locations like Jaipur and Coimbatore and has not set a universal date for employees to return to office. “When it comes to the future of work, we believe there is no one size fits all and our approach to how, when and where we work will vary by business, team and the type of work we do,” says Lakshmi C, MD and lead-HR, Accenture in India.

Food delivery unicorn Swiggy’s employee survey revealed that over 80% employees would like the flexibility of WFH. “One thing was clear: if we could trust employees for the last two years, why not continue that and make it flexible for them?” says Girish Menon, head-HR, Swiggy. Accordingly, employees have been put in role-based buckets, with those who work from a desk having the option to work from anywhere, provided they turn up every quarter for a 7-day, in-person “jamboree”. Ecommerce major Flipkart, which reopened its corporate office in phases, has adopted a hybrid model with teams having the discretion to decide details. “This model is a combination of employees working remotely and from the office on different days of the week, allowing teams to decide the days that work best for them,” says Chief People Officer Krishna Raghavan.

Naushad Forbes, cofounder of Forbes Marshall, was surprised to find employees coming to office most days when they piloted a mandatory one day a week in office. “I feel giving flexibility makes employees more productive,” he says. Pune-based engineering firm Thermax has adopted a role-based, hybrid work model. “We are not allowing permanent WFH as company culture gets impacted but we are also not mandating how many days employees spend in office as it will depend on the nature of work and what needs to be delivered. So our focus is on measuring outcomes instead of time in office,” says HR chief Jasmeet Bhatia, adding that not having a hybrid work environment is now considered outdated. At the Hyderabad office of US firm Solenis, employees come in two days a week, to be ramped up to three next month. “Employees don’t like perks being taken away. We have clarity that this model works so I don’t think we will go back to five days in office,” says vice-president Hitesh Chelawat.

And employees appreciate having autonomy and flexibility. Her firm’s hybrid work option allows 39-year-old Pali Tripathi, VP, fleet management solutions at RPG who became a mother recently, to work from home when she’s not out in the field. “Earlier, if we were not out meeting clients, we had to be in office. That’s no longer the case.” For newly-wed Pratik Singh, head, modern trade operations at Marico, the option to work remotely meant he could be in Hyderabad, his wife’s base, instead of having to look at relocation options. “It’s helped me have a healthy work-life balance without having to worry about career progression,” he says.

But these options are not across the board. All employees at Mahindra & Mahindra are back in office from April 1 with “flexibility being provided where needed” says group HR president Ruzbeh Irani. The policy, he says, will be reviewed in three months. On Thursday, chairman Anand Mahindra tweeted a video of employees back in office, adding, “Screens are no substitute for a warm personal hello.”

In sectors bled dry by a talent war, recruitment experts say remote and WFH options might well seal a hiring deal. Swiggy’s Menon affirms that the company’s policy is helping attract the category of talent that is interested in the brand and company, but less so in relocating.

“There’s a senior hire we are trying to get on board, who did not want to move to Bengaluru from Gurgaon. But once they read our work mandate, they became keen because now they know they need to come here only once a quarter,” he says.

Conversely, the lack of flexibility might drive out employees, who may initially toe the RTO full-time mandate but will leave as soon as they find a better option. A mid-management executive at a Mumbai-based conglomerate, for one, is fed up with the hassle of the daily commute his RTO involves. “I’ve applied for jobs at multiple firms,” he says, on the condition of anonymity.

As the RTO experiment rolls on, there will be new learnings. For one, companies will need to figure out how to maintain equity and fairness. “Those whose roles do not allow WFH might need to be compensated in some other way, not necessarily monetarily,” says IIM-B’s Dutta. There will also be the challenge of proximity bias. “A section of the workforce will come to office to show they are good organisational citizens, which might create pressure on others to follow suit.”

For now, flexibility is the key word. “I like hanging out with people and there’s a lot of learning that happens in person. But some people don’t, and that’s fine. It has nothing to do with productivity,” says Ajinkya Kulkarni, cofounder of Wint Wealth. The early-stage startup’s largely young 70-strong workforce can come to office or not, depending on their job profile but Kulkarni has noticed that people have been coming in voluntarily. “I think people are bored. And office main AC hota hai (office has AC)!”he chuckles. Kulkarni adds that the company is trying to keep things as flexible as possible. “Define targets, and as long as the work gets done, there is no need to look over anyone’s shoulder.”

As a nearly two-year, unprecedented WFH experiment comes to an end, questions abound. Some are existential, like what is the very point of an office if you can work equally efficiently from anywhere? Others less so, like what will my manager think if I come in once a week and my teammate thrice? Ironically, the one concern that’s not top-of-mind? “No one’s talking about Covid or health and safety. People assume the pandemic is over,” laughs 121help’s Gangrade.

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