Thousands of techies in locked-down India are braving coronavirus daily to keep the world running

Keep safe distance.
Keep safe distance.
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The world’s abrupt slowing down in the past few weeks may have introduced millions of Covid-19-wary professionals to the whole new paradigm of work-from-home. Yet, a third of India’s four million IT employees are still trudging regularly to the office even if mostly to make life easier for clients abroad.

Every working day, these thousands risk contracting coronavirus, jeopardising even their families’ health, by going to work amid India’s ongoing 21-day lockdown. Only because their jobs, in cities like Bengaluru, Pune, and Hyderabad, form the backroom spine of some of the world’s corporate behemoths.

Indian IT majors like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys, and Wipro service giants like General Electric, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, Airbus, Cisco, British Telecom, Vodafone, and Nielsen, among thousands of other companies across the globe. “We power the financial backbones of several countries, support some of the largest health care and pharmacy companies in the world, run technology for governments and public services organisations,” a TCS spokesperson told Quartz when asked about the lockdown.

Besides, many global businesses also have essential functions—accounting, payments, billing, human resources, and payroll—being carried out in their own back offices in India.

“If these services are not available, the companies get crippled,” said startup analyst Harish HV.

The technicalities

There are several reasons why so many Indian techies cannot remain safely cloistered.

For one, moving the work environment overnight is not easy, given the sensitivity of client data. More often than not, projects are worked out of dedicated offshore development centres (ODCs). This is done according to clauses often built into the contract with clients.

“Many different areas in ODCs are blocked off with separate access cards…Even if the client wants to be considerate, it’s not possible because you may be violating a regulatory applicable policy,” said Benoy CS, vice-president of the digital transformation practice at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “Some ODCs won’t even allow mobile phones or anybody with a camera. These physical security measures cannot be implemented at home.”

Firms like Wipro, India’s third-largest IT company, are seeking waivers, but it is risky, Benoy added.

In any case, configuring corporate virtual private networks (VPN)—programming that creates a safe, encrypted connection over the public internet—to give access to multiple devices from different locations and building traceability has been a challenge for the industry. IT body Nasscom is working with the government for favourable policies on this front.

“We do believe that many of these issues and processes will stabilise over the next week and the BPO industry, with support from the government, will showcase the largest work-from-home pilot,” said Nasscom president Debjani Ghosh.

Some companies, on the other hand, are struggling simply due to a shortage of laptops and unreliable internet and power supply.

The worst-hit are those who run voice-based call centres, an IT engineer said, requesting anonymity. Their equipment simply cannot be set up at home.

Heavy personal cost

With an economic slump looming over the country, the office-goers can’t even ask for leave for fear of getting fired, the call-centre engineer said.

This even when suspicions are rife that some firms may be abusing the “essential services” tag to keep workers in office longer than required, especially given the skeleton staffing under these circumstances.

All this is taking a toll at the personal level.

Like medical professionals, flight staff, factory workers, and delivery personnel, techies still reporting at work, and their families, are increasingly stigmatised by landlords and neighbours.

“Some folks who stay away from their hometowns had their work disrupted because of PG (paying guest) accommodation not supporting them during this time,” said Lux Rao, director of solutions at IT services company NTT.

A few of the firms are, however, stepping up to the occasion. “Companies are putting these employees in guest houses and making arrangements with hotels,” Rao said.

India’s second-largest IT services firm, Infosys, has already taken the lead on this front, offering accommodation to its staff on campus.

Meanwhile, even for those working from home, life’s not necessarily easy.

For instance, some IT companies have implemented “employee productivity trackers like webcam-based movement capture, hourly timesheet entry, tracking of keyboards and so on, to ensure employees are working at home,” Yugal Joshi, vice-president at Texas-based consultancy Everest Group, told Quartz. “This indicates a deep-rooted malaise in Indian IT/ITes industry where the senior management generally mistrusts people.”

The scales are tipping most heavily against women. “Engaging in household chores and working is becoming increasingly difficult. I hear many women are thinking of resigning; a few already have,” said one female techie in Bengaluru, seeking anonymity.

The benevolent workplace

Overall, IT campuses are far less swarmed nowadays than usual, making social distancing easier.

“We are working in tandem with our backend IT and security teams to ensure smooth transition and continuity of such essential services, and continue to function in accordance with the government’s order and advisories,” said Tech Mahindra’s chief people officer, Harshvendra Soin.

Infosys, on its part, has even removed biometric scanners to minimise the possibility of the virus’s transmission; it has installed thermal scanners instead to keep track of staffers’ body temperatures.

Companies are helping employees deal with these mentally distressing times. Genpact, for instance, has a “Wellness HelpDesk” with trained psychologists addressing employees’ emotional needs. Infosys, too, has set up a dedicated helpline.

Industry leaders have also gone on record saying layoffs are not on the horizon. Cognizant has even declared a 25% bump in base salaries as a “sign of gratitude” for those working through the pandemic.

However, whether the industry will be able to sustain these measures for long is another matter.

The pandemic will ultimately lead to missed billing opportunities and additional costs to enable work-from-home for employees, analysts at Kotak Securities said in a note on March 25.

“Large organisations will have the working capital to take care of this period…But for small and medium businesses, it’ll be very difficult to come back,” Ashutosh Sharma of Forrester Research said.