As companies in India strive to get employees back into the office, even for a few days a week, many are facing pushback. Some employees want to work from anywhere, which is a perk being offered by several large IT companies. But while that approach may work for roles where employees don’t need to meet with clients, HR executives say employees should return to a physical workplace to improve engagement and innovation.
“The idea is to use the office as a collaboration space … to build bonds with our people,” said Garima Pant, Mumbai-based Group HR Director of MullenLowe Lintas Group, an advertising and communications firm which recently asked its staff to return to the office three days a week.
The key to making the return easier is to give plenty of notice, Pant said. “We’ve prepped them over time that at some point you’ll have to come to work,” she said. In November, the company announced it would move to a hybrid work model. Later, when the firm’s leaders decided that employees should return to the office starting in April, it was communicated a month in advance. “We’ve used the managers to nudge the teams,” Pant said.
Many HR chiefs explain that they are asking employees to return not because they don’t trust them to be productive at home, but because the companies believe it’s necessary for the business. “Considering the fact that we’re a thinking industry, we need people to talk, vibe, bounce off ideas,” Pant said.
A similar rationale spurred leaders at ADP India, a payroll solutions provider, to ask employees to return starting last month. “What really worked for us is that we eased it out,” said Vipul Singh, head of HR for ADP India. “We did it over a period of time.”
During the pandemic, ADP had leased larger office space in the cities of Hyderabad and Pune, which they designed to be fun and inviting, said Singh. In September, the Hyderabad office was reopened with only a few business leaders in person. In November, all employees were invited to check out the office. By mid-December, Singh said that of the 6,000-people team in Hyderabad, 2,300 employees had visited the office at least once and an average of 900 employees were coming in daily. These employees started sharing stories and posting their experiences about the new office. “They started becoming ambassadors,” Singh said.
In March, ADP said that starting April 5, all employees needed to return to the office at least three days a week, but kept it flexible as to which days. However, starting May 1, they made that return mandatory, Singh said.
ADP then rolled out technology tools that allowed employees to reserve their office space, and the company provided free food and other benefits to make the office more attractive. “When people came in, we did a song and a dance welcoming people back to work,” Singh said.
Helping the Commute
Return to office has been particularly problematic for employees who live far away from the office, or worse, had moved away from big cities to work from smaller towns located farther away. “We told people, those who are outstation, to take one month and come back,” Pant said.
To reduce the pain of commuting in the city, she said MullenLowe offers employees the option to choose which days and times they want to come into the office. “This ensures that you have flexibility,” Pant noted.
ADP has gone a step further by offering financial assistance to encourage employees to live closer to the office, or to buy a scooter or motorcycle to reduce commuting time. “We gave them something more, so it actually becomes an incentive,” Singh said.
Dealing with Exceptions
While there are instances of employees asking for the ability to remain remote, HR chiefs said they aren’t encouraging that option as it could lead to a cascade of requests. “We’re not providing any exceptions,” explained Singh, who added that while the firm had offered some leeway until recently, enough employees have now returned to encourage everyone else to come back.
At MullenLowe, Pant said that a handful of employees have tried to negotiate working from anywhere, but that most of those requests have been turned down since “we have a lot of client meetings and we need those people to meet clients.” She said they also inform employees that if they insist on working remotely, it may limit their career growth and ability to achieve leadership roles, since being in person for client meetings is important. That said, Pant agrees that in some cases, such as if an employee has a sick parent who needs care, an exception would be made.
So far, HR experts say this approach seems to be working. Singh said that while some employees have left their jobs because they were asked to return to the office, it hasn’t changed the company’s average attrition level. Recently, he said, 87 percent of employees are coming to the office every day and 95 percent are coming at least three times a week. “I feel very comfortable,” he said.
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.