End of work-from-home? People take baby steps back to office

Topics Work from home | Office

An employee with a media investment firm in Cyber City, Gurugram, returned to his workplace last month. It was his first visit since March 2020, when Covid-19 necessitated work from home. His company had gone ahead with plans to set up a new office, which materialised in the middle of the pandemic. For him and a handful of his colleagues, returning to office in an unfamiliar and bigger building has meant parking themselves in separate corners of an entire floor all day. If a quick round of table tennis or carrom was the norm earlier to take a break from work, they now have enough space to prac.....
An employee with a media investment firm in Cyber City, Gurugram, returned to his workplace last month. It was his first visit since March 2020, when Covid-19 necessitated work from home. His company had gone ahead with plans to set up a new office, which materialised in the middle of the pandemic. For him and a handful of his colleagues, returning to office in an unfamiliar and bigger building has meant parking themselves in separate corners of an entire floor all day. If a quick round of table tennis or carrom was the norm earlier to take a break from work, they now have enough space to practise their cricketing skills without worrying about hurting anyone.

Barely five to six out of a staff of nearly 100 are now routinely going to office two-three times a week — also as a measure to let younger colleagues draw confidence to leave the comfort of their homes.

As companies in India put in place a hybrid model and encourage employees to return, the experience of a physical workplace is being rediscovered. The anticipation for a more definite return to life in office is apparent, although fresh concerns have crept in with the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and how it could potentially delay the shift back to office. 

“There is no difference in terms of work, whether you are at home or office. But it’s good to be back,” says the employee with the Gurugram-based firm who doesn’t want to be identified. The best part about working in an office is that one is inclined to follow better sitting postures compared to at home. And with the hybrid option available, one need not spend long hours at the workplace anymore, he adds.

He says he has spent entire days alone in a meeting room at the office, while logging in to virtual conferences. Between work, he can afford to order food via an in-house app from the canteen on a separate floor and pick it up.

From January, the company plans to make it mandatory for employees to go to the office thrice a week. For now, he says, no outsiders are allowed in.

For an economist who works with a diplomatic mission in New Delhi, work life is back to the pre-pandemic days since late September. Although it was a cold turkey initially when her office decided to make the switch for all five days a week, she began to appreciate it even as she believes that a flexible model is the best way forward. “Now, I don’t switch on my laptop after leaving office,” she says.

It has been a smooth resumption for an office with barely 60 staffers. The office has been able to ensure individual rooms for all its employees, as opposed to around two-thirds earlier.

While this means limited interaction among colleagues, videoconferencing remains a go-to option for connecting with everyone, including clients. The conference room is open but now accommodates half its capacity in view of physical distancing norms.

The office hasn’t got its vending machines functional again, so employees have arranged substitutes with kettle and dispensers in their rooms.

Like every year, a Diwali party was organised but in the open air. “Everyone was so happy even though it was for just a couple of hours. We realised many of us had not met each other despite coming to the office regularly,” she says.

Some are opting to go back to office despite not being persuaded, simply because it presents an opportunity of sorts.

An official of a multinational cosmetics brand went to his Mumbai office post-Diwali, after working from his home in New Delhi for seven months. He had only gotten used to working in office at the turn of last year before the second wave of Covid-19 in India compelled the work-from-home route yet again. “I feel more work gets done at home, but there are problems of coordination,” he says, not wanting to be named.

His office is opening in phases — it started with an optional one day in September, to at least once a week of working from office, followed by twice and eventually thrice every week from January.

He had his own reasons to be an early returnee. “Delhi is more about friends, family, socialising and favourite places, so Mumbai is ‘healthier’ for me,” he laughs. A second, related reason is from a career point of view. “You should be visible. Tomorrow the annual (business) cycle is coming, I might want a role change. Those conversations are better in person,” he adds.

As of now, there is only a third of the overall strength visiting the office. Not everyone has rushed back, as many have been staying in their hometowns. But those who are in Mumbai are more than willing to turn up, he says.

Priti Dhua, who works with Tata Consultancy Services in Kolkata, is looking forward to her office reopening by January. The IT major asked employees to settle down at their deputed locations by mid-November.
“I am willing to go to the office a couple of days a week. There are a lot of distractions at home, which can be then avoided. At the office, work timings are fixed so the hours can’t be stretched like it tends to happen at home,” she says. Besides, she feels, being at home constantly can be unhealthy due to a lack of mobility and the absence of an ergonomic setup.

First-timers, meanwhile, are having mixed feelings about not working from home for a change and the novelty of meeting colleagues in flesh and blood.

An IT professional, who was hired by a Bengaluru-based company last October during campus placements, has so far worked from her home in New Delhi. She is likely to go to her office in January when a flexi-model kicks in for everyone.

She is thankful to the company for its readiness in facilitating remote working easily, including designing courses for fresh hires so that they are familiar with all facets in the absence of a physical 
experience. However, the virtual mode of working is not conducive for creative client-facing roles that require brainstorming, points out the employee, who doesn't want to be identified.

“I have been very comfortable working from home. But I’d love to put faces to my bosses and colleagues,” she says.

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