In the first week of October, Sakshi, a project manager with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) — India’s biggest outsourcing giant and largest private-sector employer — received an email from her supervisor that asked her to start preparing to return to the office by November 15.
After India’s countrywide Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, 96% of over 500,000 TCS employees worldwide were asked to work from home. Sakshi, who requested to be identified using a pseudonym because she is not authorized to speak with the media, moved back to her hometown in the eastern city of Kolkata after working at the Bengaluru office for almost two years. Now, after working at home for 18 months, she says that she and many of her other colleagues are not prepared to uproot their work-from-home life and return to the “restrictive” pre-pandemic office environment.
Prior to the pandemic, working in an office made her feel micromanaged, she said. “Previously our login and logout time were monitored regularly, break sessions were looked down upon, and leaving early was not appreciated, irrespective of no work,” said Sakshi, who started to enjoy the independence and freedom of working from home and only interacting with her team via online meetings. “It felt like we were in school, being run by some self-imposed principal.”
“Now that we are comfortable working from home, and the entire set up has been changed, it will be a big challenge for us to go back to work because it will disrupt our entire work-from-home life,” she added.
Over one million Indians like Sakshi who work at IT outsourcing companies, such as TCS, Wipro, and HCL Technologies, may not have a choice in the matter when it comes to coming back to offices, as companies renege on their promises to transition to more-flexible working conditions.
Inspired by American tech firms, last year, Indian IT companies discussed a “hybrid model” for employees. TCS was among the first Indian IT companies to share a long-term vision that allowed employees to work remotely beyond the pandemic. The Mumbai-based company had said that by the year 2025, only 25% of its total staff will work from an office at any given time. Infosys had said that “once things are normal,” at least 50% of its workforce will go to an office. HCL said it was exploring whether work from home could be a permanent feature.
Now, it seems, many of those plans have gone out the window. TCS intends to call around 80%–90% of its employees back to the office, its chief operating officer, N.G. Subramaniam, told BBC in September. Both Wipro and HCL Technologies have already had their senior employees going to the office since September and now expect other employees to join as well. Infosys, on the other hand, has told its employees that they can resume working from the office if they wish to. This comes in the backdrop of India crossing the 1 billion vaccine doses mark and Covid-19 cases steadily dipping.
Even TCS, which envisioned a long-term remote work model, is bringing workers back. The company has said it is bringing all employees back to the office to help them adjust to the “new normal” of working from home before going hybrid in the future.
In an emailed response to Rest of World, a TCS spokesperson said that 5% of the company’s associates are working from offices and, toward the end of this year, it will encourage its associates to be back. “We are committed to the 25/ 25 model, but before transition to the model, we need to start by getting people back to office and gradually evolve to 25/25,” said the spokesperson. “As a preparation for coming back to office, we have requested our employees to plan to get back to their deputed location [their base branch] by 15th November 2021. The return to office will be a calibrated move, taking employee safety to consideration.”
A Wipro spokesperson said that 3% of its employees are working from offices, and it has extended work from home for others till January 3, following which, a phased approach will be established for the eventual return to offices.
Queries sent to Infosys and HCL remained unanswered as of publishing this article.
Before the pandemic hit, most Indian outsourcing companies did not offer a work-from-home option. In fact, companies such as Infosys have been chided in the past for their rigid swipe-in-swipe-out policies. Industry experts attribute this rigid, factory-style model of employment to an aging managerial class.
“People who are leading these businesses are all people of a certain age. Over the last two decades, they have all templatized working from office as a mode,” said Kamal Karanth, founder of staffing firm Xpheno. “As much as they say that work from home has worked for them, they still believe that there have been pockets of work that have been inefficient. Their playbook in the past has been to get people to the office and get the work done.”
One of the reasons experts believe Indian IT companies are keen on bringing back employees is a recent spike in attrition rates. The top six software outsourcing companies, which includes TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, recently reported an overall voluntary attrition of 17% during the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, a jump from 11% the same time last year. Both Infosys and Wipro had one of the highest attrition rates, at 20% from July to September this year, while the attrition rate at TCS stood at almost 12%. During the same time last year, these companies were experiencing talent loss at the rate of 8% to 11 %.
Experts believe that IT companies are now hoping that employees deciding between multiple job offers will eventually see in-office employment as a perk.
“There is this new awareness that complete remote work will have its challenges: the mental health of employees, how do you encourage teamwork, how do you keep them engaged, a central sense of purpose,” said Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder of staffing firm TeamLease Services. “That’s why many companies who, at the beginning of the pandemic, made bold declarations — and that includes some IT companies also — are realizing that they cannot do complete remote work.”
Meanwhile, Sakshi from TCS is waiting to hear from her project manager, who is different from the supervisor who sent the email. She believes that her work doesn’t demand being at the office at all, and she is not going to be expected to be there. If that doesn’t work, she may try to transfer offices. One thing, she says, is certain: “I am definitely not moving back to Bengaluru to work from the office there.”