IT at the Crossroads

IT at the Crossroads

Long-term WFH will bring about more changes in the Indian IT/ITES industry than we are thinking of right now

After nearly 9 months of worldwide lockdowns enforced to combat the COVID scare, it is now common knowledge that the booming IT/ITES/outsourcing sector in India has not only successfully fended-off the threats of uncertainty but has also considerably flourished. This despite the fact that over 90% of the employees were working from their homes all the while – or perhaps that was precisely the reason for the success!

Work-from-home has its pros and cons, but there’s no evading the fact that it has proved to be a game-changer, and for all practical purposes, working-mode at least for the IT/ITES/outsourcing sector is never going to be the same again.

Of course, all organised– and even a few unorganised sectors – tried their best to accommodate some degree of flexibility for employees in their mode of conducting business. The primary objective was to maintain business continuity to the extent possible – at the same time keeping employees safe by preventing the chain of contagion. Some companies managed to do this reasonably well while others fumbled through trial-and-error.

In contrast, the IT/ITES/outsourcing industry already had a robust remote working infrastructure in place for several years – in fact the accomplishments of that sector rested on offshoring and remote working in the first place. They took to the change as fish to water, simply by extending the scope of remote work – spreading out the employee workstations from office premises to individual homes was the only change they had to make. Almost all services in this sector comprised desk-based, white-collar activities conducted in a digital environment and employees were well-conversed in WFH norms as they were used to conducting business from home necessitated by personal obligations every now and then. Therefore, all the organisation had to do was to arrange for a wider bandwidth to accommodate remote access for all the employees together; the rest remained the same. It was no wonder that the IT/TES/outsourcing industry would trump the situation despite the uncertainties of the pandemic.

But what no business leader could have envisaged was the duration of this changed mode of working. That was something even healthcare experts could not predict, given the entirely novel nature of the coronavirus. It is an unknown foe whose ways-of-working are yet uncharted by science, and precaution is the only available weapon to fight the contagion.

Once the truth began to sink in, it became clear that we are in for a really long haul, and nobody is going to return to their old work patterns anytime soon. Either the virus peters out and becomes less fatal or an effective vaccine is pushed into the entire world population – both of which are long-term possibilities over which none has any control whatsoever. This meant the new work pattern was here to stay and it was going to change the very fabric of what we knew as office so long.

In various media forums and industry surveys, Indian business leaders and HR experts have started sharing their vision of what is coming. Using their years of on-the-ground experience they are trying to sketch out what would change permanently – at least in the IT/TES/outsourcing industry – as a result of protracted, and probably enduring, WFH practices. The impact, they all agree, is going to be manifold and not confined to remote working. The situation is evolving each day, and nothing can be predicted for certain – yet let us try and list the most likely permanent changes in the Indian IT/ITES sector post-pandemic.

  • The offshore-onshore concept is going to die forever. A “no shore” model is going to be the permanent state where everything that might be possible off-site will be done remotely – more specifically, from the own location of the professional who executes the job.
  • While for the clients this new world order will mean way more outsourcing, for the employers this will mean reduced office set up and lesser involvement in a monitoring capacity. There is also a possibility of employees directly working for the clients and IT firms as intermediaries may no longer be relevant.
  • WFH is definitely going to stay, but as the pandemic subsides, it will evolve and finally settle as a hybrid WFH model where employees would be occasionally attending office on a need basis. Such needs may be infrastructure-related, like getting one’s laptop serviced or work interaction-related, like meeting the team face-to-face to set the blueprint for the next big project about to be kicked off.
  • Offices, as a consequence, will transform into places of interaction and professional exchanges, where employees might touch base perhaps once or twice a week to plan, ideate and network – but not to work! Work will happen from home, unless it is a field job.
  • This would mean more lounges and meeting rooms and no workstation in office premises – leading to much reduced occupancy of real estate. The business of office property is going to take a big hit, unless the real estate industry comes up with more relevant and innovative offerings for corporate clients.
  • To create a real-life ambience in remote meetings and calls, VR-based tools would soon be the “in” thing. Companies will try to provide in-person meeting experience through immersive technologies.
  • The remote working model will allow the HR department unimaginable flexibility in terms of creating teams across geographies. They will be leveraging the global reach to access talent from anywhere over the globe, based on skillsets and expertise. Reaching out to a wider talent pool will lead to better job and role matching – leading to the recruitment of the right person for the right job.
  • Another huge change will be having more women candidates joining the workforce. Irrespective of culture or geography, women have traditionally been torn between home and work, and in many cases have ultimately lent priority to home. However, with the new normal setting in, WFH will no-longer be a special privilege but the norm at workplace. As a result, women would be able to better balance work-life dynamics – and would no longer need to quit one to cater to the other. To the recruiters, this is a great opportunity.
  • Performance appraisals may witness new dynamics because, in a fully remote set up, the best communicators are likely to be the best workers. Self-motivated people who need minimum intervention and can express themselves well over calls and virtual meetings would be the star performers.
  • Managers, too, would be assuming new garbs. Middle managers may be phased out, as micro-management and supervision would no longer find any use in the remote set up. Managers will now become more of guides and facilitators, clearing bottlenecks and acting as arbiters.
  • Being social animals by nature, humans tend to form groups and avoid solitude. Working from the seclusion of home long term could create a sense of isolation – leading to psychological insecurity. Keeping away from the centre of official activities makes most employees feel left out even at normal times; amidst the uncertainties of pandemic it would be greatly aggravated. This had already started to happen a couple of months into the lockdown and would continue to spread. HR must proactively intervene with regular communication and support systems. This is going to be one major department in which HR will have to develop new expertise – and possibly even get psychiatrists on board.
  • Cybersecurity is going to be a mammoth concern as home networks are most vulnerable to clandestine attacks. With the world logging in from home, hackers would be sharpening their knives while every company will invest on preventive systems. Cybersecurity professionals will be enjoying a booming demand. We might be witnessing more complex log-in requirements in a short while.
  • Several legal complications may have to be addressed too. Data security, breech of client confidentiality contracts, inadvertent lapses by employees working in a relaxed setting, privacy and indecency concerns, and similar issues would keep nagging the industry.
  • And there would be socio-economic issues too. Deutsch Bank strategists in Europe has already proposed levying a tax on employees who work from home. These experts consider WFH to be a special privilege granted to white collared employees and hence the tax. The proposed amount thus collected would go to the welfare of the less fortunate working class who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. The idea is still at a nascent stage – but is targeted at social equity and can well snowball into reality.

With the Government of India recently initiating a major reform of the Other Service Provider (OSP) guidelines, most of the registration and compliance requirements for the IT industry have already been either relaxed or eliminated altogether. The amendments clear the road for companies to allow ‘work from home’ and ‘work from anywhere’ for their employees on a permanent basis. Things will never be the same again, indeed!

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