How companies are preparing for ‘return to office’

There has been reluctance from employees to join office after a long period of remote working

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Companies such as TCS, Wipro and Infosys have already expressed their wish to see their employees back in the office. In fact, one of the pulse surveys done in 2021, which covered about 250 Indian companies, states that more than half of the companies — about 66 per cent — want their employees to start working from office.

Out of these 66 per cent, more than half, that is, about 36 per cent, want 76 to 100 per cent of their employees to return to office. The remaining 30 per cent want 51 to 75 per cent of their workforce working from office, in person.

Clearly, companies want to resume ‘normal’ in-office functioning and operations. However, the definition of ‘normal’ has kind of changed, thanks to the pandemic.

“From the very beginning, we had made it clear to the employees that work will happen in office”

Milan Chattaraj, chief people officer, MTR Foods

Employees have realised that work can be easily managed from home and the daily commute to the office is not necessary. With this shift in the mindset of the employees, companies are finding it rather difficult and challenging to draw their employees back to office.

In fact, one of the recently-conducted global surveys reveals that the happiness quotient of employees is higher when they are allowed to work remotely or from home.

The survey states that the employees’ happiness quotient increases by 20 per cent when they are allowed 100 per cent work-from-home. That means, remote working is something that employees are happy with.

How companies prepared themselves for return to office

Talking to some of the HR leaders in the industry, HRKatha has tried to understand how companies have prepared and planned for ‘return to work’, and the kind of challenges they have encountered in doing so.

Reluctance: “The pandemic has brought in many changes. There was a huge shift in the mindset of the employees and a certain loss of connect from the workplace. And hence, reluctance was there,” says Archanaa Singh, SVP-HR, Reliance Broadcast Network.

Singh further observes that in their case, the sales team was still quite engaged but the supporting staff was very reluctant to come to the office again.

Mixed response: Ranjith Menon, SVP-HR, Hinduja Global Solutions, shares that there was a mixed response from the employees when the Company decided to re-open in a staggered manner. “Some people were very excited, while others were not really happy returning to office,” admits Menon.

In trying to understand the approaches companies have taken to slowly re-open their offices and call their employees back to office, HRKatha spoke to various HR leaders and realised that different companies with different mindsets have formulated different plans to return to office.

Hot desking at Hinduja Global Solutions

Menon shares that usually, most employees are working from home but there are some roles or functions in which they are required to work from the office. For this, the Company is following a roster model, wherein employees and teams from different functions can choose their days of working from the office. For this, the Company has started ‘hot desking’, where teams book their seats and number of rooms they require through an online app being used companywide.

“The key to a successful return to office process is maintaining the same level of employee experience as it was during the pre-pandemic times”

Ranjith Menon, SVP-HR, Hinduja Global Solutions

As per Menon, the major challenge was to give the same experience to employees which they used to have before the pandemic. Menon rightly points out that many of the employee services such as food and snacks were not available at the optimum level since the vendor is aware that the employee strength in the office is just 20 per cent as compared to pre-pandemic levels. “Catering to such low staff would be a loss of time and business to the vendor,” says Menon.

The ‘hot desking’ system plays a huge role here. Through the online app, the facility- management team knows how many employees are attending the office on a particular day, and the food and snack services are arranged for the employees accordingly. “We also have a chat system where employees can inform if they would be having their lunch outside,” shares Menon.

Menon also reveals that to attract and motivate more employees to start coming to the office, the Company has been communicating with them internally, in the form of articles and by sharing small motivational stories. “We used to share the happenings at the office, such as a workshop or some small party organised by some team. This made the employees realise what they were missing and motivated them to resume office,” explains Menon. “We believe that the key to a successful return to office process is maintaining the same level of employee experience as it was during the pre-pandemic times,” adds Menon.

Rewards policy at Reliance Broadcasting Network

At Reliance Broadcasting Network, they decided to give up their offices after the pandemic. As per Singh, the Company has started to work on a co-working space model. To motivate employees to return to office, the Company revised its rewards policy. “We felt the rewards and perks that employees receive on working from office, such as travel allowances and so on, really matter to them, so we worked on that,” mentions Singh. Additionally, the Company decided to add a team-centric reward system.

Earlier at Reliance Broadcasting, the reward system was a individual centric system where employees were rewarded on the basis of individual performance. To enhance collaboration and connect between teams, the company decided to introduce team centric reward systems.

“There was a lack of connect between teams, so we thought that team rewards based on performance will create and motivate more collaboration amongst the teams,” shares Singh.

As per Singh, this really boosted the morale of the people and resulted in significant growth in efficiency.

“There was a lack of connect between teams, so we thought that team rewards based on performance will create and motivate more collaboration amongst the teams”

Archanaa Singh, SVP-HR, Reliance Broadcast Network

Clarity from the very start at MTR Foods

Milan Chattaraj, chief people officer, MTR Foods, shares with HRKatha, that the company was very clear from the beginning of the pandemic that most of the work will take place from office. During the lockdowns, in keeping with government advisories, the workforce at the corporate office had worked from home, but as things started to open up, the Company also re-opened in a staggered manner. However, “from the very beginning, we had made it clear to the employees that work will happen in office,” says Chattaraj.

Through various town halls and other virtual engagement channels, the message was sent across to the employees that the Company will work from office, albeit with some flexibility. It was communicated that the employees would be allowed to work remotely on certain number of days in a month when required.

“We believe that culture is only made when we work from office. If we want to drive innovation, collaboration and cohesiveness, we have to work from office,” asserts Chattaraj.

So the challenge of having to face reluctance from employees did not really come up for the Company. Yes, to assure employees, the Company ensured that the workplace was totally safe for them with all COVID-related protocols being followed.

In fact, Chattaraj shares that the Company has a framework, which guides them on the steps to be taken when they are required to work from home and when they re-open offices. “So, how many positive cases should lead to a closure and how and when to re-open in such cases is all stated in the framework,” says Chattaraj.

As in most companies, first the top executives started coming to the office. “This is a sign of leading from the front and motivates others to follow,” enunciates Chattaraj.

Then slowly, others started joining the office in a staggered fashion. Just as many other manufacturing and frontlines roles, the privilege to work from home was not really there in the organisation.

Challenges with the new hires

The new hires have also started to demand work from home, since they know that it is possible to manage work from home without compromising on productivity. “This has made us rethink a lot. We have also made certain roles flexible, such as that of a copywriter or a voice-over artist. At the same time, we have also told employees that whenever the need arises, they would be required to be in office,” says Singh.

On the other hand, Chattaraj says that their management trainees were more than happy to work from office. “They really wanted to experience the office culture,” shares Chattaraj.

Companies have prepared themselves in their own ways for ‘return to office’. Many have adopted different working models, providing flexibility to employees.

Clearly, the pandemic has changed the mindsets of both employees as well as employers. Companies are going out of their way to encourage employees to work from office without really compelling them to. Whether people will be gung-ho about returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyle, remains to be seen.

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