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The future of remote working, as seen by HR heads and thought leaders

At a virtual webinar organised by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the focus was on the merits and demerits of working from home in the pandemic and beyond

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At the CHRO Conclave organised by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI), top professionals came together virtually to deliberate on one of the pressing issues in the post-pandemic world—the future of remote working. Mr Aditya Berlia, Co-promoter, Apeejay Stya and Svran Group, moderated a panel discussion on the same which comprised several industry stalwarts.

Talking about the panel session, Mr Berlia said, “I was humbled by the fantastic openness and vulnerability displayed by all the leaders. Only when we are willing to share our real struggles, not just our successes, can we learn and build from each other.”

Is remote working here to stay?

With the advent of the pandemic, companies were compelled to adopt remote working as much as possible, in tandem with the Covid guidelines. As work from home became the “new normal”, it began to be preferred by many—from decision-makers to employees—for the flexibility it offered. But does remote working only have advantages? At the conclave, experts made an objective evaluation of the pros and cons of remote working. 

“There are certain industries where remote working is not completely possible like construction, manufacturing, physical deliveries, etc. Remote working has certain advantages in terms of cost, commuting, accommodation, but what I really am worried about is that in the whole process, we have to learn to get used to it. The mindset has to change. We also have to leverage technology. Earlier one of the important facts in performance management was punctuality. Now I think with remote working, the performance management system has to be redesigned to focus on delivery,” Mr R P Singh, Chair, HR IR Committee, PHDCCI, said in his opening remarks.

On one hand, the pandemic allowed people to work from the comfort of their homes. On the other, people found it challenging to maintain a clear divide between their professional and personal spaces, said Mr Prem Singh, President-Group CHRO, JK Organisation. “The positive side of remote working is that it brings down distances without any hassle. It is cost-effective, productive, and efficient in terms of time and resources. We have seen the negative side of it as well. There are continuous Zoom calls and people experience difficulty in working with family members around. It takes a toll on mental health, relationships with family members, boundaries between personal and professional space.”

It is not remote working but hybrid working—a combination of onsite and remote working—that is going to stay, he stressed.

‘Talent war’ in post-pandemic world

Coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company, the term ‘war for talent’ refers to a competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees. Sharing the challenges, Mr Rishi Bhatnagar, Board Member & President, Aeris Communications, India, said, “In 2021, when work started growing, the talent war started happening and I am expecting it to take another two quarters. During this time, when we are trying to hire, candidates ask what your budget and work from home policy are. It has become a very big issue. They take a job and do not join on time. People have also started working multiple jobs which is also an ethical challenge. The way we have been able to handle it is that we have identified 30 per cent of the job which can be done from home. Rest 30 per cent can be hybrid and the remaining are supposed to be in office. Performance management is definitely an issue that has to be worked upon. We have to change our parameters. However, innovation is something that is getting impacted too much because of hybrid working.”

Maintaining work culture

One of the biggest determinants of whether one can operate via remote working is the industry you belong to. Mr Sanjay Bose, Executive Vice President and Head HR, ITC Ltd, mentioned, “Our work is about creating an experience for the customers, which cannot be done remotely… About 20 per cent of our activities have gone remote which do not have to do with direct interface with the customer. There were three distinct phases in remote working. First was euphoria where you were at home and were the master of your own time. That gradually morphed into a stage that was about boundaries between work and home. Third, as an organisation, we had to be very conscious of putting in boundaries and do a hard cut-off of work hours for our people. Over a period of a year, we learned that we needed to get people to meet. Teams joined remotely and did not get the feel of where and what they were working for. We started creating opportunities where people would meet physically, even for an hour. The only mandate was that 30 per cent of the time was not to be spent on work, which yielded some results…We give a lot of informal support to people to engage outside of work.”

Future of remote working

Mr Hitesh Arora, Joint Secretary, Haryana State Board of Technical Education, shared how government offices were also adapting to the changing work structure through online communication, including e-learning and e-office systems. “Blended learning is here to stay. Tools are helping to communicate better and have a track record…I have myself done 10 MOUs in the online mode. But there are some occasions where you cannot avoid physical meetings. The personal touch and personal feeling in the teaching-learning process have no comparison but technology has given us a very good lesson that things can be done in a more effective and structured way.”

In the automobile industry too, hybrid working is what is deemed a “workable model”, said Ms Aparna Dhingra, Head HR and Administration, BMW India. “A lot of countries were already following remote work culture, even before the pandemic. Globally, it has not been very challenging or different either. Covid has broken through technological and cultural barriers. Hybrid is still a workable model. Activities that require ideation, coaching, counselling, negotiation are aspects that require physical presence. There are certain roles where people must work from the office on a long-term basis.”

Added Mr Anurag Mehrotra, Group CHRO, APL Apollo, “We started creating something of a hybrid model. On the sales side of things, there was a lot of hybrid working…We gave a lot of flexibility to our leadership. We are very heavily working on Google meet. Some wanted to work on MS teams. We were equipping our workforce with technologies that worked for them. Cross-functional teams worked in tandem to reach out to our customers.

Addressing if remote working will enable future expansion across geographies, Ms Simin Askari, Senior Vice President, HR and Business Excellence, DS Group, stated, “We have always gone to the remotest of locations. We never felt geography was a constraint. With collaborative tools in remote working, the job is easier. The resources that we hire are also across the country. Remote working is definitely helpful… We are looking at a hybrid model as an integral part of our work now. Certain roles cannot be done remotely.”

Apeejay Education was also the webinar partner for the event.

Disha Roy Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent at Apeejay Newsroom. She has worked as a journalist at different media organisations. She is also passionate about music and has participated in reality shows.

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