The Covid-19 lockdown was a nightmare for India’s nearly $200 billion IT services industry, which was far from prepared to shift to a work-from-home model overnight. But now, even though the government has allowed firms in some areas to partially reopen offices, the sector is in no rush to return to the workplace.
“Most companies will take time to reopen, undertake sanitisation exercises and ensure contactless transportation for their people,” said Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president at industry body Nasscom. Gupta has been in touch with IT companies to work out procedures for bringing employees back to offices.
To ensure people’s safety, Nasscom has put together a set of recommendations (pdf) to be followed by all its members. Independently, IT firms are following extensive procedures of their own as they prepare to get more staff to work from offices.
In a conversation with Quartz, Gupta spoke about the long-term prospects of work-from-home in the Indian IT industry, and the business impact of the coronavirus lockdown. Edited excerpts:
How has the IT industry been coping with the lockdown so far?
In the first week of the lockdown, less than 2% of the workforce had to come to offices to operate data centres and set up a virtual private network, as companies were moving laptops and setting up the infrastructure to support work from home. After that, 90% and 70% of the companies in the IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, respectively, settled into work-from-home.
The industry is slowly coming back to offices with passes and self-regulation, but the night shift continues to be an issue.
What are the clients of Indian IT companies saying about their work-from-home arrangements? Have contracts been renegotiated to reflect the new work realities?
Clients are very supportive. They themselves are going through it. They have defined the kind of work expectations they have from IT companies. There are some concerns regarding data security and privacy. The focus is on ensuring that no data leakages are happening.
Do you think Indian IT companies will support work-from-home in the long-term given its benefits to the environment and employees’ wellbeing?
I think a blended model, which means some work-from-home and some work-from-office, will continue. The reason for continuing in offices is mainly because clients are not giving approvals to run some critical functions remotely.
Indian companies don’t have a culture of working from home. Do you think the lockdown has changed that?
Personally, I’m not a proponent of working from home. It is about how you are used to working. Nasscom offers flexibilities around work-from-home in usual business days as well. But as an individual, I yearn for face-to-face interactions.
Work-from-home needs discipline. Indian work environment so far had not thought about such a distributed model. Companies have never done a work-from-home pilot at such a large-scale.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed all of us to do this. Every company has realised the benefit of work-from-home.
What is the way ahead for making work from home a norm in Indian IT?
IT business model works on clocking timesheets of employees. There is a need to improve it.
Meanwhile, work-from-home is all about clearly identifiable deliverables. With people working in teams, there has to be explicit clarity around the team’s and individuals’ deliverables. Also, people are ending up blending personal and office time, so defining those boundaries is necessary.
Upskilling and training also need to be looked into. In a work-from-home scenario, there are going to be no more physical training. So, how do you handle and train people for the new positions?
HR policies need to evolve. There should be no differentiation and discrimination between workforce at home and at the office.
How do you think will Covid-19 impact the IT industry’s revenues and job creation abilities?
Clients have been impacted by the lockdown. Travel and transportation verticals are not even functioning at a basic level. Other verticals such as automotive and aviation are facing a global slowdown.
Most of the IT companies in India have withdrawn their earnings guidance. People have said that first and the second quarter of the year will be impacted. How severe the impact is going to be will depend on which industry you are in and the clients that you have.
There could be a return of growth in the third and the fourth quarter. Our clients do not know what’s happening so how do you expect us to know. It will take us a couple of more months to see and understand what lies ahead.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has asked companies to avoid job cuts. How is Nasscom counseling its members to deal with this directive?
The industry is pyramid-shaped. There are large companies and then a long tail of small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs). The SMEs have been majorly affected by the lockdown. It is going to be difficult for them to sustain the government mandate and to pay salaries to employees. We expect the government to help SMEs with some sort of stimulus to help SMEs pay salaries. Larger IT companies will not see salary increments. There will be hiring freeze unless these companies have new projects.