Home Alone During Covid-19: Employees Long For The Connect–Virtual And Real 

From patchy internet and delays to home alone, here’s what India Inc. is grappling with...

During a video conference with all regional executives of American Express last week, the call dropped twice. That wasted 15 minutes.

The internet was patchy for the Indian counterparts who had joined from their homes, said an executive at the world’s biggest card company. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media about internal communications.

When people join from different time zones and have multiple such interactions lined up in the day, a 15-minute delay disrupts the schedule. That’s the reality companies are grappling with amid lockdowns and social distancing to contain the new coronavirus pandemic. But with businesses losing time and revenue and the global economy is already in a recession, it’s the only way ahead, at least for now.

Work from home is not an option for shopfloor employees and physical processes, but senior executives of technology to manufacturing companies BloombergQuint spoke with expect it to last a while. For some, it’s been full for glitches, while others think it’s not that bad.

“It is not an easy thing to work from home for a company like us,” MS Unnikrishnan, managing director and chief executive officer as Thermax Ltd., the maker of energy equipment, said over the phone. “When you are a project-oriented business, there could be a delay in the overall work but we are managing. We are thinking a lot more on how to manage in this fashion as well; so it’s a good learning.”

Thermax anticipated the shutdown and held mock drills of more than 3,000 employees working from home. The systems were configured on a secure server, dongles were provided and 300 extra laptops were arranged, Unnikrishnan said.

India’s largest carmaker, too, configured the systems to make them available to executives working from home. Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. set up a central help desk to resolve technical issues of employees working remotely, Rajesh Uppal, chief information officer at the maker of Swift hatchback, said over the phone. To be sure, manufacturing plants remain shut.

  • Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest software services provider, said in a statement that it’s rolling out secure borderless workspaces to ensure access, security, flexibility, and reliability.
  • InMobi said it upgraded bandwidths by providing dongles and setting up desktops at home for a few of the 1,400 working remotely.
  • WNS Global, an outsourcing firm, too, is implementing work-from-home in phases.
  • Truck aggregator Blackbuck, which employs nearly 3,000 people, also rolled it out in phases.

WNS provided support depending on the nature of work, the security protocols involved for clients and the ability of the employee to actually take work home, Keshav Murugesh, group CEO at the company and chairman, Nasscom, told BloombergQuint in an emailed response. The firm increased monitoring for real-time security.

Blackbuck purchased 300 laptops and even allowed employees to carry desktops home, according to Rajesh Yabaji, co-founder and CEO. The company, which switched to entirely work from home 13 days ago, is operating call and support centers remotely. “The productivity and quality has been higher for us in offline [remote locations] than in office,” he added.

Still, the biggest downside is that this is putting undue load on household broadband connections. Offices usually have better bandwidth and commercial networks are designed to take load. But when suddenly a significant number of people start logging in from home, outages follow. Internet has turned patchy.

An executive at Harman International, maker of connected car technology and audio products, said the company has asked ato keep changing the location of the secured server if it doesn’t load. But this causes delay, the executive said without willing to be identified. Also, her bandwidth makes the entire process slow, she said.

Yabaji said Blackbuck also faced issues like VPN going down and bandwidth problems, which it fixed.

A Bengaluru-based TCS employee who works for CISCO, a client, said on some days he faced a delay of five to six hours. The system keeps going down as the bandwidth fails, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of employment concerns.

ACT Fibernet, which provides internet services in multiple southern cities, said it has seen a 40 percent increase in peak traffic in a short span of time. “We have sufficient provisioned bandwidth available to cater to increased demand,” Prasanna Gokhale, chief technology officer, said, adding that the company is not seeing network congestion and quality issues.

Yet, frequent delays because of poor connections are leaving companies frustrated. WNS’ Murugesh on Monday, in a tweet, asked telecom operators to talk to Nasscom and come up with a new offering across India with higher and uninterrupted bandwidth for employees of IT companies.

Amex, meanwhile, has yet to respond to queries about the connectivity and work-from-home problems it was facing, especially in India. But the company executive quoted earlier said it has managed to sort most of these issues.

Home Alone

Employees attend a meeting at the Think and Learn Pvt. office in Bengaluru, India before the virus, (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Employees attend a meeting at the Think and Learn Pvt. office in Bengaluru, India before the virus, (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Yet, fixing the bandwidth only solves part of the problem. Workers marooned at home lose the advantage of face-to-face interaction about projects and quick consultations. That, too, slows decision-making.

Karthik, who works with a ride-hailing firm in Bengaluru, said it’s faster to walk up to someone’s desk and get the work done. “With work from home, the productivity has dropped drastically,” he said. “A lot of documentation is required to keep everyone in the loop when working remotely.”

Sahil Mathur, global head of human resources and culture at InMobi, agreed. “Certain advantages come from everyone being in the same office, where people ensure that things are done fast,” he said, adding that sometimes execution gets delayed.

To ensure productivity doesn’t suffer, some companies are relying on apps designed to keep a check on those logging in remotely. Sidhaarth, a Delhi-based executive who didn’t give his surname, told BloombergQuint that his company has installed TeamViewer to monitor the number of hours spent on the system in a day. “Sometimes, if I’m on calls, it’s difficult to prove that you are using your laptop. Yesterday, my productivity was only four hours, while I was working till 9 p.m.”

Still, office is not about sitting at your desk and finishing an assignment. It also involves numerous interactions over coffee or tea, at times in groups, personal bonding and even small talk that are known to take stress off people and boost productivity. Some companies are trying to instill that fun element in their work-from-home experience.

Mathur said InMobi has asked managers to individually connect with staff virtually more often. “We do things like headgear Thursday where everybody will wear a cap in a virtual meeting. Or connect people while having tea or coffee,” he said. “We are trying to ensure that we don’t lose the connect. It’s important for employees to meet and connect.”

For Vishal, who didn’t give his surname to maintain anonymity, said his company, among the largest offshoring firms with more than 25,000 employees, is using videoconferencing app Zoom. “Peers can just knock me on Zoom using the link, and we can connect instantly,” he said. “It has become a cultural thing as to how do you virtually stay in office. This has been quite helpful.”

An HR manager at a large Delhi-based consumer goods maker, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the firm hosts a virtual tea session every alternate day between line managers and HR heads. The idea, the executive said, is to understand the challenges and stay in touch.

But she can’t wait to get back to office. For her, it’s been lonely to work from home—she misses the people, the plant on her desk and the office coffee.