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Precautions.
KEEP SAFE DISTANCE

Coronavirus is changing the way India’s startup employees work in office—and outside it

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

How to keep the workforce safe from Covid-19 without disrupting business is the key concern before Indian startups today.

Not surprising, given the rampaging disease, the country’s subpar internet infrastructure, and looming cybersecurity threats.

Taking a leaf out of China’s playbook, e-commerce major Flipkart has made it mandatory for its Bengaluru headquarters employees, between 8,000 and 10,000, to work out of home for three days a week starting March 11.

Over half-a-dozen other smaller startups are exercising similar precautionary measures.

To help young teams battle the crisis, a rulebook titled “COVID-19 Precautions” is being circulated among the startup crowd on Twitter. The document, prepared by members of the community themselves, shares updates on coronavirus, recommends precautionary steps and also lists hospitals, among other things.

The World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 a pandemic. So far, over 126,000 people have been infected by coronavirus globally and more than 4,600 have died. In India, 73 positive cases of coronavirus have been confirmed so far.

Given the magnitude of its spread, no amount of caution can be enough. Under these circumstances, and in a country where work-from-home is still a nascent idea, adapting to the new practice will turn out to be a huge challenge.

Hurdles at home

In tech companies, where teams often deal with sensitive client data, it’s imperative to operate out of a secure environment. Household broadband connections don’t guarantee this security.

“Not every employee may have the requisite infrastructure to work from home and bandwidth may not also support in everyone’s home. With most data now being on the cloud, data security needs to be monitored and governed adequately,” Neeti Sharma, senior vice-president at HR firm TeamLease Services, told Quartz. “Every organisation will need to shift large scale to remote work, involving workers who may not be used to working from home.”

Paul Ducklin, principal research scientist at British security software and hardware company Sophos, suggests three steps that companies must follow to plug security loopholes:

  • Encryption: Make sure that full-device encryption is turned on and activated, which protects any data on the device if it gets stolen
  • Protection: Start off with known security software, such as anti-virus, configured in the way you want
  • Patching: Make sure the user gets as many security updates as possible automatically so that they’re not forgotten

In the same vein, companies have to ensure employees have somewhere to report and resolve security issues. “Remember that a lot of cyberattacks succeed because cybercriminals try over and over again until one user makes an innocent mistake—so if the first person to see a new threat has somewhere to report it where they know they won’t be judged or criticised (or, worse still, ignored), they’ll end up helping everyone else,” says Ducklin.

The other challenges to working remotely are more functional, such as monitoring work, time management, and digital miscommunication.

Still in office?

Even as the Indian government has sealed the borders, there is no major lockdown in place at offices in the country. In many cases, the workforce is still coming into office as usual.

But even in such cases, companies are trying to do their bit.

“We have distributed N95 masks to our employees and issued (an) advisory regarding personal hygiene,” Santhosh Reddy, co-founder and vice-president of technology at e-commerce startup ShakeDeal, told Quartz.

Messaging app Hike has placed hand sanitisers in bathrooms and in cafes at its offices. Additionally, it is adjusting temperature in the office because the virus is supposedly more potent at lower temperatures. Hike has also moved to vegetarian food in its canteens, serving oranges, pineapples, and guava at snack time to enhance employees’ Vitamin C intake.

Social e-commerce startup DealShare has put a stop to all non-essential business travel, even asking employees traveling abroad for personal reasons to quarantine themselves for 14 days after return. Those travelling domestically are being checked for symptoms and temperature before joining work.

The wary attitude extends beyond employees, too. “No visitors are allowed in office—all meetings and interviews are taking place on phone or video calls,” said Sankar Bora, DealShare’s founder & COO.

The gig fix

While the more traditional companies seek to strike a balance within their workforce, industries reliant on gig workers, such as food-delivery and ride-sharing, are harder to control. Tens of thousands are exposing themselves daily without being equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

“The people in the US who deliver groceries on Instacart, food on DoorDash and Grubhub, and goods on Amazon, are overwhelmingly hired as independent contractors, without employer-sponsored benefits like health care and paid sick leave. In an outbreak like coronavirus, that’s bad for a couple of reasons,” Quartz’s Alison Griswold wrote in her newsletter Oversharing on March 5. The scenario in India is no different. Workers aren’t eligible for any social benefits like insurance, medical bill claims, employees’ provident fund, bonus or gratuity, nor do they have many employment-related rights.

However, Indian companies that rely on gig workers are trying to make concerted efforts in this regard. Homegrown ride-hailing unicorn Ola has equipped its walk-in centres across cities with a steady supply of health advisory material, sanitisers, and masks that can be picked up and used by the driver-partners.

“Our delivery partners are continually being trained in best practices of respiratory hygiene, proper method and frequency of washing hands as well as identification of associated symptoms,” Swiggy told Quartz in an email.

The Bengaluru-based food-tech firm also promises to go beyond an awareness drive. Should delivery partners notice any associated symptoms, Swiggy will provide them with free medical consultation through partners. Plus, in cases where delivery associates have to self-quarantine, Swiggy is committed to supporting them financially.

When it comes to sheltering customers, Swiggy is taking a page out of investor Meituan-Dianping’s book. In late January, the Chinese food-to-flights startup rolled out “contactless” delivery, an option to have the order dropped at a location requested by the customer to avoid any in-person meeting. Swiggy is letting people request the delivery partner leave the package by the door after making an online payment.

In the absence of proven medications for the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, prevention appears to be the best cure so far.

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