Bhavit G. joined an IT services company in Pune as a global delivery head a couple of years ago, when covid was at its peak. Not having to commute everyday meant he had more time to focus on work, which increased his productivity, but he found he couldn’t bond with his team members.
“It was a mixed bag,” recalls Pune-based Bhavit, 48, who has been back in the physical office for the past six months. Returning to the office “creates a sense of belonging to the organisation and helps build a bond with co-workers. It also brings an element of professionalism to work, from dressing to conduct. Any amount of mentoring and coaching on a video call will not be as effective as when it is done face to face,” he says.
When covid upended our lives in 2020, employees across the world were forced to quickly adjust to remote working. As pandemic-induced lockdowns eased, organisations started finding ways to adapt again so that they could accommodate new hires, attract talent and cater to the need of employees who had settled into the rhythms of remote work but craved “real” human interaction. The answer has turned out to be hybrid work. An increasing number of companies, like Bhavit’s, are allowing their workers the flexibility to do both remote and in-person work because it gives them me as well as we time, which may boost productivity and learning.
A hybrid approach allows organisations access to a wider pool of talent as they are not limited by geographical boundaries in their search for talent, especially when it comes to the tech industry. A recent AT&T study found the hybrid work model is expected to grow from 42% in 2021 to 81% in 2024.
In India, companies like TCS and Infosys have called for an end to remote work, signalling that employees must return to office at least thrice a week. Many other big and small companies are also making a return to the office mandatory, while trying to test the hybrid working model.
Nalini George, chief people officer of e-commerce and online retailing company Rakuten India, believes the future of work is “all about choice”, and a hybrid work model is a great way to achieve it. Reason: it allows for the agility of remote work while maintaining the benefits of face-to-face connections, she says.
“Ultimately, the amount of office time needed will depend on the nature of work and the organisation’s culture. Every office will need to tailor its approach; it’s s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says, adding that employers must provide the necessary tools and resources to enable effective collaboration, irrespective of where employees are based.
There are many positives to being in the office; it’s not just about productivity. Saahil Goel, co-founder and chief executive of e-commerce logistics aggregator Shiprocket, believes in the power of the physical office. “The pandemic has proved that work can happen anytime and anywhere,” he says. “But in the long term, people need to feel like an integral part of a team. Looking at each other on a screen, we may miss body language cues and micro expressions, which are so essential to communication, collaboration, camaraderie, and peer learning.” While majority of Shiprocket’s workforce is back in office, work-from-home is an option for some.
According to Mohit Nirula, the chief executive of senior living community operator Columbia Pacific Communities, the pandemic taught the working world that one could do almost everything on time, on quality and on cost, but “it also reinforced the fact that human relationships need physical interactions to go beyond the transactional and transient relationships that are the consequence of videoconferences.”
Columbia Pacific Communities allows flexibility in location and timing to team members, as long as they deliver. For new recruits, however, the rules are different. “We are keen to offer adequate office time in the first three to six months to ensure a greater appreciation of the organisation’s goals, work culture, managers and colleagues, work ethics, and etiquette, all of which is best achieved through physical interaction,” Nirula says.
He adds that office time includes opportunities and a space for “down time” between meetings, over tea and meals—small things that have big impact, as they help employees buy into an organisation’s culture and vision. “Online meetings start with an agenda and end when the discussion is over. This is great for transactional efficiency but does not build culture or belonging,” Nirula explains.
Ahmedabad’s Sonakshi Rana, 23, regrets not getting enough face-to-face time with colleagues when she worked as a junior management executive at a company amid the pandemic. Her initial reaction to work-from-home was of relief. “There was no commute, but over time, the boundaries between work and non-work hours started blurring and we ended up being online all the time,” she says. “I found that I needed more time to get information from co-workers and seniors. People who had been with the organisation for long were obviously in the know, but it was tough for me to learn the basic things. I think my learning curve would have been better if I hada been in the office.”
The Power Of Proximity, a recent working paper by economists Natalia Emanuel of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Emma Harrington of the University of Iowa, and Harvard University’s Amanda Pallais, bears out that younger workers do better in the office initially. They note that working in the same building “has an outsized effect on workers’ on-the-job training,” with the effect being more significant for younger workers. “Older workers not coming back to the office may depress younger workers’ skill accumulation,” they wrote.
Bengaluru’s Anju Narayanan, 41, joined a media organisation during the pandemic. She says that despite work being frenetic almost every day, there were “good days and bad days and my productivity wavered accordingly”. Once she started going to the office thrice a week, she realised how important the physical space and interaction are for building camaraderie and a certain informality and understanding between colleagues.
Arppna Mehra, vice-president (human resources), global DTS (Digital Transformation Solutions) and HR head for Harman India, says hybrid work provides wider opportunities for diversity. “It has brought women tech talent and others who couldn’t travel for work back into the workforce,” she says.
Rakuten India’s George agrees. She says the workplace of the future will be reimagined to facilitate human connection, with an emphasis on spaces that promote collaboration, creativity and social interaction.
Bhavit would prefer a hybrid way of working for the rest of his working life. “I prefer going to office for certain things but there are times when I prefer working from home,” he says. “It has to be a healthy mix.”
Narayanan, too, wants “blended working”. “When employees are given the flexibility of choosing their preferred mode of working, it leads to greater productivity,” she says.
Shiprocket’s Goel says the best workplace is agile and has the ability to comfortably use a mix of several working models, such as work from home/office, hybrid, rostering, co-working locations and satellite offices, all “depending on customer requirements and employee preferences”. “There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution,” he says. “Employee-centric companies will have to learn, unlearn, and relearn along the way. The answer lies in taking people with you.”