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NEW DELHI - As she settled down to work from home when India announced a lockdown in March, Shweta Andrews thought exultantly "this is the way to go." After all she no longer had to do the grinding commute between office and home in the Indian capital that took up two hours daily.
Two months on, the digital editor of a publishing house is nostalgic about that ride. "I miss my colleagues and believe it or not, I miss travelling in the Metro. I miss the rush. I miss the crowd."
The unprecedented experiment of work from home that began in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has prompted some Indian companies to explore the possibility of scaling up remote work as they eye long term benefits such as smaller office spaces and lower rentals.
But at a time when a long, stringent lockdown has intensified social isolation, many are finding that an interactive office environment is hard to replace at home.
A New Delhi-based senior professional in a global company, Apoorva Bapna, dismisses the notion that remote work could be the "new normal" and points out that while flexi-hours are welcome, online connections cannot replace the energy generated by professional spaces.
"There is just that much of bouncing of ideas I can do on a video call or a phone call. Sometimes you just need to sit across the table and have that heated conversation or a debate or just exchange ideas," says Bapna.
India's Information Technology sector appears to be blazing the trail for adopting the work-at-home model as the industry gears up to have nearly half the country's four million I-T workers operate remotely - up from an average of 20 percent before March. The country's biggest technology company Tata Consultancy Services says that it will have 75 percent of its workforce operating from home by 2025.
Some companies that rely heavily on online work could make the shift much sooner because they found it to be an efficient model in the last two months.
"From a purely productivity standpoint, we have seen a fairly smooth transition in work from home," says Raghav Gupta, managing director, India and Asia Pacific with Coursera, a U.S. based online learning platform. He gives an example. "If I would go to Bangalore and meet two sets of people in a day, I can do five meetings today by sitting at home."
As India eases its stringent lockdown and offices begin to reopen with a much leaner staff onsite, the debate has begun heating up.
Some assert that the personal touch provided by an office environment cannot be overlooked, even in the IT sector. "You get ready for the day, it is a mental shift you make," according to Abhimanyu Mukherji, a service delivery manager in New Delhi with a partner company of software organization, SAP. "Just walking up to someone and talking to my team has a different impact. Now there is a loss of human touch and social interaction which we all are so used to."
While he and his team delivered to their clients' satisfaction during the lockdown, he points out that working at home from living rooms and dining tables can pose challenges of the kind that some of his team members with young children faced.
"When the kids are at home, they expect a lot of attention from the parents and therefore they are having a lot of difficulty in actually concentrating on the job," says Mukherji. "The children assume that you must be on leave so you should be giving them all the attention."
There are also the constraints that living in small apartments or extended families throw up, especially in cities with expensive rentals. "It is not easy for people who live in Bombay, in smaller homes with six to eight family members crammed up in two bedroom homes," points out Bapna.
And work from home settings can be even more burdensome for women. "We do everything on the house front and we also manage our office work, which is fairly hectic," says Bapna who was caught in the lockdown in Jaipur city where she was visiting her parents.
Amid the lockdown there have been no comprehensive surveys to indicate which way Indians would prefer going. But a recent survey by a Bengaluru based research firm, Feedback Insights, found that two-thirds of employees were concerned about personal wellbeing, a lack of connectedness with the team and overall anxiety about the job environment. They also cited frequent distractions at home as a key challenge.
However benefits such as savings for companies, less traffic on roads, less pollution and less spending on fuel and daycare will inevitably lead to a greater push for the work-at-home model in the post Covid world.
"By choice and also by planning we will say - you go to office two days a week, you may or may not have a dedicated desk, and the other three or four days you consistently work at home," says Gupta at Coursera.
But shrinking office spaces, thanks to technology and the new emphasis on social distancing, is something many view with trepidation. Andrews draws an analogy with reading a book on Kindle - it does not replicate the original. "The feeling of holding a book in your hand, that touch, that smell, that personal feeling you get - it's the same as personal contact in an office," says Andrews. "So yes technology and computers and zoom and Kindle don't work as well as interacting with a real human being does."