Return to Office? No, Thanks! – BusinessToday

Clipped from: https://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/management/story/return-to-office-no-thanks-300654-2021-07-08

Many white-collar workers are ready to spruce up resumes and look for a job change if asked to return to office

Illustration by Raj Verma

Gurgaon-based Harjas Sethi became an online sensation in February when she posted a video on her Instagram account about how her “rooh kaanp gayi” (soul was shaken to the core) when her employer sent out a survey to check what employees felt about returning to office. The video ends with Sethi clarifying it was for “entertainment purposes only.” She even addresses her boss, Zoya, saying she was ready to work anywhere given how bad the job market is.

The video, retweeted by RPG Group Chairman Harsh Goenka and Paytm Founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, blew up on the internet. Its popularity echoes the pulse of a large section of India’s white-collar workforce which is no mood to return to office just yet. If pressed, many are prepared to resign after finding another job with a fully remote working option. “I will definitely leave if they force me to return. I’m looking for options anyways,” says a New Delhi-based user experience (UX) designer at a leading e-commerce app.

A recent Microsoft Work Trend Index survey found that 74 per cent of Indian employees want more flexible work options. The survey was based on responses from 30,000 people in 31 countries. It does not specify how many prefer fully remote work, but is clear that almost 62 per cent of India’s workforce, including 51 per cent Gen Z employees, want to switch jobs this year. The UX designer counts herself in this category. “I’m sure some company will be willing to offer me remote working option.”

Commute, The Bad Guy

After 16 months of working from home, many have become used to the conveniences it offers. The absence of travelling to office in rush hour traffic ranks high up on the list. “I don’t have to set aside time to get ready, book a cab and travel to work. I save around three hours, which is huge in a nine-to-five working day,” says the UX designer.

Office commute platform MoveInSync Technology Solutions found in August 2019 that Indians spend more than two hours on the road every day. This is longer than in most countries.

For sure, there are several employees who prefer returning to office once the pandemic wanes rather than suffer the digital exhaustion of work from home (WFH), compounded by minimal social interaction. Yet, what is the point of wasting two-four hours travelling every day when the job can be done from home much more productively, several employees ask? “It’s not as if the moment the clock strikes five, I have to close my work and run to catch the bus or train to go home. I reduce the time spent on travel and other distractions and instead focus on my work and deliver the results more productively,” says a 33-year-old pre-sales and proposals specialist at an IT firm in Hyderabad. He says he can catch up with friends on weekends to beat the monotony and isolation of WFH.

Family First

With domestic helps difficult to find, children learning at home and senior citizens to care for, the pandemic has been much harder on working women than men. They find WFH more suitable to juggle their career and life.

A 39-year-old marketing consultant in Bengaluru doesn’t see herself returning to office for the next two years. “With a child and senior citizens at home, there is no point in travelling so much. Yes, you get to meet people, but it’s not that you would like to go and sit in an office every day for that.” She says the WFH aspect of a job has taken precedence for her over many things now. “I see remote working opening up more opportunities. We’ve seen enough in the last year-and-a-half to face any challenge and move on to figure out something else.”

A LinkedIn Workplace Confidence Survey noted a ‘shecession’ in India. The survey of 1,891 professionals from May 8 to June 4 found India’s working women are twice more likely to be worried about availability of jobs, professional network and time devoted to job seeking than men. “Remote jobs can provide them the much-needed flexibility and growth opportunities,” LinkedIn’s India Country Manager, Ashutosh Gupta, says in a press note.

Here, too, there are challenges such as drawing boundaries at home while working. The flexibility WFH has afforded them trumps the many disadvantages it may have introduced, other working mothers say.

“I had to communicate to my family about my work time being sacrosanct,” says a 35-year-old data scientist with a leading oil and gas company. Between having to relocate often because of her husband’s transferable job and caring for her five-year-old, she had to take a few career breaks. After experimenting with different arrangements, she decided to shift to Mumbai during the pandemic because of WFH. Now, the family is able to live together, even though her office is in Chennai. “It will be difficult if they ask me to return to office,” she says.

Rush For Remote Work

Shiv Agrawal, Managing Director, ABC Consultants, has been seeing many requests on professional networking site LinkedIn for fully remote roles. Remote job postings on LinkedIn have increased more than five times in the past one year. If allowed to work remotely, nearly 68 per cent Indian workers are likely to move to a new location, the Microsoft survey found.

Meanwhile, recruiting firm Randstad India has seen a trend of people looking for borderless employment opportunities. “These are for mid- and senior-level roles in Europe, North America, Singapore and Hong Kong across tech roles like AI, app development, machine learning, creative roles like web designing, consulting, and functional roles like HR, marketing and communications,” said Sanjay Shetty, Head of Strategic Account Management at Randstand. He estimates that around 35 per cent of India’s white-collar workforce may be fully remote even after the pandemic.

Job Hunt On The Anvil

Of course, not everybody may quit their job if pushed to return to office, certainly not in the current job market. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy says 15 million jobs (white-collar, blue-collar and daily wage) were lost in May 2021 alone. This is second only to April 2020 when 114 million jobs were lost due to complete nationwide lockdown. And hiring has not picked up uniformly across sectors, say recruiters.

Nevertheless, several employees BT spoke to said they would at least discuss flexible options with their HR managers. If everything else fails, a job hunt is inevitable, they say. “If asked to come back, I have to go back. The next job I look for will definitely have a remote working option so that I can give more time to family and personal needs,” says a 26-year-old investment manager who has moved to Mandya, a small town 120 kilometres from Bengaluru, to be with his family.

Those open to job change mostly belong to IT, e-commerce, marketing, investment management, UX design, data sciences, etc, whose digital quotient makes them suitable for remote working. These also have more job opportunities, despite the pandemic, compared to travel, tourism and construction, which have been hit hard, according to the Monster Employment Index May 2021.

But with a churn in the job market likely this year, Microsoft India COO Rajiv Sodhi pointed out in his note accompanying the study that “an organisation’s approach to hybrid work will ultimately impact who stays, who goes, and who seeks to join the company.”

‘Up To The Employees’

Several firms have been saying the future of work is hybrid. But there is little consensus on what constitutes a hybrid work model. Just before the second wave of the pandemic took over the country in April, major companies had begun chalking up plans to call employees to office. This time, most companies across sectors BT spoke to have not reopened offices yet. Many intend to continue WFH for the time being in roles where it’s possible to give employees flexibility.

Panasonic India, which resumed working with 20 per cent capacity in the office, says only vaccinated employees are allowed on the premises based on a weekly roster. “We have given employees complete flexibility and freedom for resuming work from office depending on their emotional and physical well-being,” says CHRO Adarsh Mishra. Before the second wave hit, the consumer goods manufacturer was working at 80 per cent capacity.

Marico, too, returned to WFH after calling employees to office earlier this year. CHRO Amit Prakash says they “will move back to hybrid work model as well as work from office model in the coming months”. But he did not say how the company will tackle the possible challenge of people resigning when asked to return to office.

Online furniture retailer Pepperfry, which reopened office in June 2020 with 75 per cent workforce coming in two days a week, says they did not face any major resistance from employees. “There were a few genuine instances where people with old parents/young kids/comorbidity requested to continue working from home. However, a unique challenge we faced was employees requesting for office work for more than two days a week,” says HR Head Aditi Pareek. The company has announced WFH for all applicable employees till end-December 2021.

Agrawal of ABC Consultants says in India, manufacturing firms will lead the pack in calling employees to office even in non-factory roles. “But mostly, it will depend on how leaders of the organisation think.”

Meanwhile, the data scientist who shifted to Mumbai says she is keen to progressing in her career now, come what may. “So, I’ll forfeit 5-10 per cent of my pay to continue WFH until I find another job that permits remote working for a long time, if it comes to that. Besides, data science is a thriving field. I’ll find another job soon if I have to.”

WFH is set to be the default option for many employees, it seems.

@SaysVidya

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