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BW Businessworld

Virtually A Reality

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But for Ryan Menzes, 28, a Mumbai-based media professional, all of this is just a childhood memory. He smiles when he points out that his time is not regimented by his workplace like that of his father’s. The option of working at any time, from any place, is available to him. “If I can turn in my deliverables on time, why should anybody have an objection?” he asks. “My company completely supports this thinking.”

A flexi-hours policy in particular suits support functions that demand minimal employee interface. Examples include marketing, knowledge management, legislation, intellectual property, editorial inputs and content creation, data management, financial research, HR and audit.

Even so, it is estimated that 98 per cent of companies in India operate conventional offices, leaving only the rest to experiment with flexible locations and hours. “Organisations have to be mature enough to exercise a judicious work-life balance,” says E. Balaji, chief executive officer of Ma Foi Consultants, an HR firm. “Also, to implement this (flexi-time work) policy successfully, companies need to provide IT infrastructure that is IP protected, so that corporate information is not leaked out.”

Technology drives this change. Instant messaging and video conferencing assign valuable projects to talented people who prefer to work out of their homes. “With the help of technology, our productivity is not affected, as employees can work from home and yet attend to personal needs, for which they would have earlier taken leave,” says Tanuj Kapilashrami, head of human resources at HSBC, which started this policy in February 2008.

HR managers who favour working from home say it reduces attrition and attracts quality workers. “Working-hours flexibility helps employees maintain good work-life balance,” says Toral Patel, senior director with the Accord Group, a talent search agency. “(But) it is the familiarity of physical offices that prevents most companies from accepting the new virtual office format.”

Home Alone
It is the scramble for retaining good talent that makes the future of virtual work look promising. “We want to be the employer of choice and aim at attracting a good talent pool with our flexi-timings and work-from-home programmes,” says Kapilashrami.



Sit back and work




Flexi-hours policy suits support functions that demand minimal
employee interface






Instant messaging and video conferencing drives this change easily






HR managers who favour working out of home say it reduces attrition
and attracts quality workers






Flexi-work policy helps to convert commute time into productivity
output, and to connect with people in areas where companies have no
geographical presence






Companies feel virtual offices help in reducing certain fixed costs and
office space per employee



The real issue, some HR managers feel, is about fighting time and distance. “The aim of our flexi-work policy was to convert commute time into productivity output, and to connect with people in areas where we have no geographical presence,” says Robin Lloyd, vice-president and general manager of software solutions company Lionbridge’s India office. So far, 50 Lionbridge employees work under this policy in India.

Globalisation has ushered in 24/7 work schedules that have taken a terrible toll on personal lives. “This is where our work-life programmes help employees meet the demands of their new job, without comprising on their personal life,” says Prathima V. Shetty, India diversity lead at IBM India/South Asia. “Also, it helps us monitor the external environment by getting feedback from clients as their needs are attended to by employees almost immediately.” IBM established a formal ‘eMobility’ programme in the early 1990s. By 2003, when figures were drawn, there were more than 40 per cent mobile employees, globally. Across its numerous offices in several countries, the company has on an average seen a 50 per cent increase in employees opting for this programme.

Virtual offices, which are mostly seen as convenient for workers, also help organisations cut costs significantly. “Virtual offices help in reducing certain fixed costs and office space per employee,” says Sachin Tikekar, chief of people operations at KPIT Cummins Infosystems, “They also help address business continuity plans as employees are fully equipped to stay connected outside office. Therefore, business is likely to be less affected when an office is disturbed due to natural calamities or other issues.”

The Flip Side
Not everybody agrees that virtual offices are cheaper and more efficient. Investments in IT infrastructure and security, and costs such as phones and broadband connectivity hike budgets even as teamwork is hindered. “Here, companies feel that more time will be invested in coordinating meetings if people are not in office, resulting in loss of time and work,” says Accord’s Patel. While a conventional office follows routine hours and offers a certain comfort level for workers to gather and remain accessible, virtual offices have neither physical boundaries nor structured timelines.

 



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Engage The Employee

Moreover, “No matter how productive virtual work is, it can never replace the power of relationships built through togetherness,” says Milind Sarwate, chief of HR and strategy at Marico Industries. “Further, virtual offices need extra inputs for bonding and ownership.”

Old habits die hard and the hesitancy to train and motivate employees who do not report to the office is still prevalent. “It is important for new employees to understand the ethos of a company, which will help them perform as per the company’s expectations,” says a senior executive of Godrej Consumer Products, which follows the traditional clock-in and clock-out time schedule. “This can only happen if employees work within the office area.”

Some companies simply feel, “There is no requirement to implement it (flexi-time work) as a policy,” says Dipendra Chumble, chief people officer at Hexaware Technologies, in Mumbai. “A company can choose as per its requirements, but if this is implemented as an HR policy, there will definitely be a downfall in productivity.”

Concepts such as distributed work, remote offices and virtual employees break the traditional belief that the visible employee is the accountable one. “Trust plays an important role in such policies. Quantifiable metrics are needed to measure progress,” says Ma Foi’s Balaji.

Scaling down conventional work environments does not necessarily result in happier employees, greater productivity and lower costs. Isolation could lead to alienation, which impacts work product negatively. To counter this, “We let managers and team members decide about exercising their work schedules,” says Shetty. “No one is assigned anything, unless they want to exercise a particular option.” Part-time jobs or job sharing, where employees divide their work on the basis of shifts or assignments, is another methodology.

Companies like HSBC, Lionbridge, Ybrant Technologies and KPIT Cummins, who are relatively new to flexi-time work policies, are looking at ways to address productivity issues. Workshops are one way to do this. “We conduct workshops to help employees understand non-traditional working styles,” says HSBC’s Kapilashrami. “We inform them of the various methods of job allocation, and explain the benefits and reasons for implementing such policies.”

Meanwhile, at least for some professionals, mornings are not the same any more. By opting to work from home, they actually manage to read the newspaper and eat a decent breakfast.

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(Businessworld issue 29 April-5 May)