KOCHI: Bringing employees back to office is turning into a major challenge for tech companies in Kerala. The pandemic outbreak brought unprecedented changes in work cultures across the world. Remote working or work from home (WFH) became the new norm for many.
Now, even as the world is limping back to normal, the workforce in the IT sector seems to be caught in inertia, and the signs of resistance to returning to the office are worrying employers. Companies have been trying various strategies — “from social gatherings and events to team outings” — to woo techies back to their workspaces. A large number of employees, the bosses believe, have become comfy at their homes.
“Remote working has to end, but it will take time,” says a senior Infopark official. “The employee footfall is increasing gradually. Many companies have introduced hybrid models, and employees are coming to the office twice or thrice a week.”
According to industry experts, the transition is taking longer than expected. Currently, only 30 to 40 per cent of the workforce has rejoined offices. Companies hope to bring at least 75 per cent of the employees back to offices when the new financial year starts.
Technopark, the biggest IT park in India, has about 460 companies and employs over 63,000 IT professionals. Infopark, meanwhile, houses 420 companies that employ about 53,000 professionals.
“Remote working became the new norm,” says Progressive Techies state president Anish Panthalani. “Also, many employees who work in Kerala are from other states. They got the opportunity to work remotely from their hometowns, and now it’s not easy for them to return to offices.”Anish notes that such employees are “saving a lot of additional expenses”. IT companies in other countries, he adds, are promoting work from home and giving good pay.
“These factors are affecting the transition,” he says. “However, I believe 70 per cent of the employees are missing their social lives; they would eventually return to offices.”‘Convenience’ is one of the top reasons for the resistance to return. “I find WFH very convenient for myself and my family,” says Magi Y V, a techie.
“We never got this family time earlier, and it’s not at all affecting my productivity. Most companies are insisting that employees go back to the office thrice a week. I prefer WFH because I save a lot of time, as there is no need to get ready or travel.”
Recently, the Central ministry for commerce and industry notified a new special economic zones rule that states WFH will be allowed only for a maximum period of one year. Many in the industry believe the Kerala government should expedite the process, as it is vital to the revival of the economy.
‘Government should intervene effectively’
“There is an alternative economy directly linked to the IT sector in Kerala,” notes the CEO of Experion Technologies India Pvt Ltd, Binu Jacob.
“If the government really wants to rejuvenate the economy, it should push for work-from-office in IT parks. From cab drivers and eateries to housewives, who used to serve home-cooked food to techies, WFH has hit several alternative economy players. For the local economy to prosper, IT parks should become vibrant again.”
Binu stresses that it is time for the state government to intervene effectively.
“The very concept of SEZ is to boost the local economy, and remote working is not a fair thing to do,” he says. “WFH is affecting the output of the employees, too.”
Notably, despite being one of the main industries contributing to the economy of the state, there is no dedicated minister or permanent CEO to monitor and address the issues faced by the IT sector. “Managers complain that they are unable to extract work from the techies,” says Binu. “Also, for instance, we have recruited 150 freshers, and they need to learn the trade directly from the seniors. This is not happening now. The WFH trend is going to have a negative impact on our economy.”
‘Hybrid model is always feasible’
Some industry insiders believe the hybrid working model is the future. Sreekumar V, the secretary of Group of Technology Companies, says the industry is hoping to bring back 75 per cent of the employees by April 2023.
“Even if we get back to normal, 25 per cent of the workforce may work remotely, depending on the nature of the work they do,” adds Sreekumar, who is a centre head at Tata Elxsi. “The industry will become stable only if 75 per cent of the workforce is back. There are companies handling projects that can be done remotely, too. So, a hybrid model is always feasible for companies as well as employees.”
Moonlighting casts a shadow
Industry experts say there are aggregators offering gig work to employees working from home. As techies save on commute time, they are finding extra hours for side hustles.
“It is a reality and this is happening in Kerala, too,” says Sreekumar. “A section of the employees is exploiting WFH and engaging in unethical practices like moonlighting. As per the contracts, such works are illegal. People keen about such gigs should quit their jobs and take up freelancing.”