Back to work

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Although many Indian businesses are starting to re-open their offices, approaches such as flexible and home working may still be required to control the risk from Covid-19.

It’s thought that a year of coronavirus lockdowns has cost the Indian economy hundreds of billions of dollars through closed businesses and reduced footfall. So it’s no wonder that the government and private companies alike are keen to get Indians back in the office.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that all government employees are required to get vaccinated by the end of June as government offices would re-open from 1 July. He also urged employees of private enterprises to get their jabs, as the state is likely to allow such offices to operate from July.

Earlier in June, Assam had directed all fully vaccinated government employees to join work from 14 June.

Photograph: iStock/lakshmiprasad S

But, as the threat of a third wave of Covid-19 looms large in India, not all employees are enthusiastic about a return to the office. Fears about Covid-19 infections at work, questions about safety precautions and concerns about vaccination rates are the key reasons for the hesitancy to return to the workplace.

A senior group manager at a Noida-based tech firm that has asked its employees to return to work from 1 July, said: “I would like to see my colleagues, but I’m apprehensive that not all will be vaccinated.” He added: “If I have to wear a mask all day and not be able to interact with them at the pantry over a cup of coffee, as it is not safe, then I would rather stay home until it’s safe to do so.”

According to the guidelines for workplace safety issued by the Health Ministry in February 2021, workplaces must be properly disinfected before reopening. Mandatory hand hygiene and thermal screening should take place at the building entrance and only asymptomatic staff and visitors should be allowed to enter.

The guidelines further state that standard and simple public health safety measures, such as maintaining a minimum distance of six feet in common places, the use of face covers or masks and frequent hand washing, must be observed by all employees and visitors at all times.

However, experts say that the initial solutions of maintaining hygiene, social distancing and contactless technology in office will not be enough to safely bring back all employees.

Controlling the risk
So, when companies make the big return to work, how will they ensure employees can trust that the risk from Covid-19 is being adequately controlled?

Factors such as nurturing employee wellness and trust, a faster pace of workplace transformation based on flexibility and people-centric workplace design, among others, will play an important role in instilling confidence in employees to return to work, the experts point out.

Businesses which have had most of their staff working from home throughout the Covid-19 pandemic are beginning to share their plans for when they do plan to bring staff back to the office.

IT services provider Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is working on a model to get back more employees back into the workplace. In order to evaluate how it will get a certain percentage of employees back, the company has drawn up a risk assessment model, known as Intelligent Urban Exchange.

The model will look at various factors, such as an employee’s vaccination status, the employee’s place of residence, Covid risks in the locality, and basic health parameters. The idea is to not only seek to make the offices safe but also to instil confidence in employees to return to the workplace.

A TCS executive explained that TCS wants its staff back in the offices because a host of critical utilities are relying on the company’s IT support. These include banks, stock exchanges, insurance, healthcare, telecom, consumer goods, retail and public services.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, almost all – 97 per cent – of TCS staff have been working from home. TCS had earlier stated that it would bring back employees to offices in a phased manner, keeping in mind safety and business requirements.

“Working from offices not only helps increase employee productivity, coordination and collaboration but also helps staff socialise and stay connected with their peers,” said Satish Kannan, co-founder and CEO of MediBuddy. “By following all the precautions, one can not only safeguard employees’ physical health but also improve their mental health.”

The health tech start-up has 1,100 employees, who are likely to return to work in a phased manner in July 2021.

At least 60 per cent of multinational design consultancy firm Space Matrix’s clients have considered recalibrating their workspaces in the last eight months.

Priyanka Bhat, director of business operations at Space Matrix (Hyderabad), said employee wellbeing has become more important amid the pandemic, accelerating the need to improve the overall employee experience. “Companies are reassessing their workspaces and employee policies to adapt to the current scenario,” she said.

Hybrid working
Companies are re-imagining their workplace strategy with a focus on safety and social distancing, flexibility and employee experience. Many are also adopting a hybrid model – where staff are allowed to balance working in the office with working from home.

“While reopening offices, most organisations will follow a mixed approach; that is, an amalgamation of in-office, remote and hybrid employees,” said Kuldeep Malhotra, deputy managing director of the sales division at Konica Minolta.

“But one must take care of a few things, such as ensuring a safer office environment as this will be directly associated with employee productivity,” he added. “Safe and healthy employees will perform much better and take fewer leaves than infected or sick.”

Malhotra added that employers must also be transparent about the accurate dates of reopening offices and the safety measures in place. “This will encourage employees to re-join with a positive mindset.”

A survey by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Dhruva Advisors Business Survey, shows that corporate India believes the country must prepare for subsequent waves and that mass vaccination is the only lasting solution to the Covid crisis.

Earlier this year, corporate India picked up the vaccination baton from the government, with many companies providing shots to their employees, eager to secure their workplaces and get the economy moving.

With over 50 per cent of Acer India’s employees having taken their first jab, the Taiwanese tech giant is encouraging its remaining staff to complete the vaccination process at the earliest. “It’s our top priority to ensure everyone’s safety so, by end of July 2021, we are hopeful of completing vaccination of all employees across the organisation,” said Bhasker Bhandary, senior director of HR at Acer India.

Acer India has settled into a hybrid working model that offers the flexibility employees need to have a good work-life balance while meeting the organisation’s requirements.

A Maruti Suzuki India spokesperson noted that operations at its plants have resumed with due caution and revised safety protocols in place. “We are ramping up production cautiously. Meanwhile, we continue to vaccinate all employees and families as a priority. Over 36,000 employees have already received the first shot,” the country’s largest passenger car maker stated.

However, a recent survey by professional services firm Aon found a majority of businesses may not make it mandatory for their staff to be vaccinated before they return to work. Most firms will consider the individual employee’s preference and the latest circumstances of the pandemic to draw up their back-to-office plans.

Businesses such as LogiNext are looking to re-open based on internal staff surveys regarding the comfort and requirements of individuals and teams.

The tech firm will gradually open its workplace for whoever wants to work from the office, and a lot of decisions will be taken on a month-to-month basis depending on how things shape up, stated the company.


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