Social distancing apps and facial recognition are the new normal at India’s IT firms

Checks and balances.
Checks and balances.
Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
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Indian IT is slowly—and nervously—returning to the office.

The $130 billion outsourcing industry was one of the least prepared to shift to a work-from-home model when the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown in March. So for the past two months, the sector, which employs over 4 million people in India, operated with a makeshift hybrid model where most of the staff worked remotely but many workers were forced to come to offices.

But now, as India gradually lifts lockdown restrictions, IT companies want to be better prepared. So, offices are getting sanitised, equipped, and digitised to ensure safety and hygiene.

Quartz spoke to several IT players and industry experts to understand what is already happening and what more needs to be done to adjust with the “new normal.” Here’s what they said:

🐢 Slow and steady

Most IT firms are starting with limited employees in offices to ensure physical distancing.

For instance, India’s second-largest IT services company Infosys is letting only about 5% of its staff return to campuses for now. By the end of June, it intends to increase this headcount to up to 15%.

“We have worked on a framework that has a hierarchy of controls—personal protection, perimeter checks, de-densifying of workspaces, healthy buildings,” Richard Lobo, executive vice president and head of human resources at Infosys, told Quartz.

Over the next few years, staff permitted in an office will vary from 10-75%, estimated Dinesh Malkhani, founder and CEO of tech-based building management system Smarten Spaces.

Mid-size firm Tech Mahindra has prepared a comprehensive floor plan management system that will ensure social distancing, chief people officer Harshvendra Soin said. The firm is also introducing staggered lunch breaks to prevent overcrowding in cafeterias.

🏢 Rethinking infrastructure

Given the need for physical distancing, experts believe Covid-19 will be the death knell for open-plan offices, which had become a rage in recent years.

In fact, cubicles and cabins could make a comeback. “Employers would have to arrange for closed cubicles or rooms for employees to ensure appropriate physical distancing,” said Payal Kumar, professor at BML Munjal University.

Some companies may even need to lease more office space just to accommodate their current workforce. Several IT-enabled services companies in India currently allocate around 60 square feet per employee against the standard of 125 sq ft to save on expensive real estate. But now, this oversight might end up costing more than what it saves.

👩‍💻 A tech push

Technology is likely to do the heavy-lifting for IT companies to adhere to necessary measures in the post-Covid-19 world.

Infosys is restricting employee movement via its Infy Me mobile app, which highlights the zones that are open and those that are off-limits at the campus. The app also updates on which food courts are functional, and which seats can be taken, among other things.

Tech Mahindra, meanwhile, is aiming for a “touch-free” work environment using a facial recognition system for attendance and a “book my seat” app to automatically allocate workstations.

Of course, technology needs to become more sophisticated and decisions will often need to be made on a case-by-case basis. For instance, companies must come up with a system that ensures people from containment zones, where the number of Covid-19 cases is very high, aren’t coming into work, said Benoy CS, vice-president of the digital transformation practice at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. In addition, companies must have the technology to give leeway to those without access to transport or parents who need to care for kids at home, given that schools and daycare facilities are still not allowed to open.

🤝 Sustaining culture

Companies will have to put in extra thought into ensuring their internal cultures survive the pandemic.

“In all, working in offices will become a joyless, sterile experience, with even corporate social events for employees limited in scope,” according to David Bicknell and Laura Petrone, thematic analysts at UK-based consulting firm GlobalData. “Staff will be encouraged to avoid happy hours, club activities, and other small group events, and return home early after work, while maintaining social distancing on public transport.”

Companies also need to be prepared to deal with heightened stress and anxiety given the strained economy and potential layoffs across sectors.

Making things worse, employees may not be getting back to work on a happy note. “I have heard from many employees in various companies that while working from home, their managers were micro-managing them more than ever. One even asked for hourly screenshots of their laptop screen,” BML Munjal University’s Kumar said, echoing what Genpact employees had told Quartz earlier. “Managers will have to focus on processes and results, and trust their team members to get things done in their own ways.”

⏳ Long-term plan

The end of the coronavirus crisis is not in sight yet, so companies need better plans aiming for lasting impact, experts believe.

“No IT company is fundamentally changing. They are just making people follow some guidelines,” said Yugal Joshi, vice-president at Texas-based consultancy Everest Group. “For now, we can have buses or cafeteria run at 30% capacity, but if we truly want to sustain this, we need to remove 70% seating from buses forever.”

Already, the country’s largest IT firm Tata Consultancy Services has taken the lead in this. The Mumbai-based company plans to move 75% for its workforce to work from home permanently by 2025.

Of course, the number of office staff can’t be brought down to zero. “There are privacy and data concerns that clients have which would impede work-from-home over a long time in back-office operations and these would need to be addressed,” said Harish HV, an independent analyst tracking India’s startup sector. That’s why thousands of the workers have had to commute into office even during the lockdown.

Even when a workable balance is struck, there’s the question of striking harmony between the office-goers and remote workers, to increase efficiency for both. “The key motivation for offices to open is collaboration and team bonding,” said Frost & Sullivan’s Benoy CS. “You need to work out a schedule. Some people coming in randomly will not make any difference.”

Meanwhile, winning employees’ trust will be an uphill battle for IT firms. An overwhelming 93% of India’s working population is anxious to return to office after the nationwide lockdown is lifted, according to recent survey by health-tech startup FYI.