Friday, June 24, 2011

Work from Home

The last time Kumar, a sales executive working with IBM India, visited his company's registered office in Bangalore was some six months ago to get his broken attendance card replaced. Kumar, 35, is among nearly 50,000 IBM India employees who are working from anywhere, but the office.

"I do not have to show my face to my boss anymore, well at least for a few weeks or months at a stretch," says Kumar, who requested that his first name not be revealed. "I used to miss catching up with other colleagues at office, but now there are hundreds of us on the road for the company," he adds.

For nearly 50,000 employees at IBM India and some 15,000 tech workers at HP's India operations, work-fromhome is no more an HR incentive meant for women going for early maternity leave, or a privilege for few - it's now an integral part of their work life.

While over 40% of IBM staff does not have any space in office, a quarter of HP India employees across the functions of sales, marketing and customer support do not have to mark their attendance or swipe employment cards.

Rising real estate costs and travel time, apart from other complexities of maintaining office space for a growing base of staff, are making a real business case for multinational tech firms like IBM, HP, Cisco and Microsoft.

What was once an option taken by those with personal problems or medical predicaments has now become a norm in some companies with the option of working from home finding more takers than ever before. Employees at IBM even receive Rs 15,000 more a month for this. This is because they save the company walloping infrastructure costs, one of the perils of rapid expansion.

This way the company can also drive home the point that it truly promotes work-life balance. The company says it also increases the productivity of employees. "We know that if we can successfully address the challenges of work-life balance, IBM will certainly gain a competitive edge in the war for talent," a company spokesperson said.

The company, however, denied paying these employees extra. At HP, the number is anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000, and the company, which did not confirm the figure as it does not share its India headcount, says it leads to better employee engagement.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft last year formalised the policy which had been practised in the company for a few years. It reimburses the broadband and telephone costs but does not throw in any extra amount to keep employees at home. Microsoft gives employees a choice of various flexible work options, and they can pick what best suits their needs.

"Not only does this lead to a better work-life balance for existing employees, and a cause for retention, it is also an attractive aspect for potential employees," said Joji Gill, HR director of Microsoft India. The software firm provides three options to work from home which include flexible scheduling, teleworking and part-time basis. Flexible scheduling is when an employee has the option of working from home for a few of his business hours on a recurring basis.

Teleworking lets him choose a schedule of days where he would work only from home. Part-time is when an employee clocks in only a few hours for work. Networking equipment maker Cisco says employee location is increasingly losing meaning in an interconnected world. The company even helps its employees set up home offices. It creates an office with email and intranet-enabled smartphones, provides Cisco Virtual Office equipment, laptops and data cards for employees who do not wish to be within the office walls.

"IP solutions from Cisco and emerging technologies are making location irrelevant, making remote working feasible. Companies can also reduce office space, thereby reducing operational costs associated with real estate and facility management," said Seema Nair, co-lead for India HR operations, Cisco. Companies say it is not just women but even men who take up this option very often.

At IBM, the percentage of employees working from home is 40% while at HP it is 25%. Microsoft's India headcount is not very large when compared to companies like IBM and HP. Domestic firms also offer this option but it is more needbased and not as rampant as their global counterparts. However, to allow employees to work permanently from home requires a company to have precise job description and agenda.

"There can not be any flab in the KRAs and the managers have to craft the jobs carefully where everything is templatised," said Saundarya, founder-member of Flexi Career in Chennai. She said problems creep in when companies look at it as a work-life balance initiative and not as an option that could help in their business goals. While most companies say they trust their employees to do a good job, there are several checks and balances like managers and the employees working closely with a set of deliverables.

Quarterly reviews and a structured performance management approach are put in place. Companies like Cisco also advise remote workers to attend regular meetings with coworkers/internal customers and managers, etc, to ensure there is adequate interaction and the employee is not completely in isolation.

"For employees who opt to work from home over an extended period of time, the manager and the employee work out a clear set of deliverables, and a quarterly review is conducted keeping in mind the business situations," Gill said. Companies say some employees may find it tough to work in isolation.

"Absence of external motivation provided by the work environment can be a disadvantage. Employees used to working in a team might feel isolated and miss the interaction with co-workers," Nair said. Officials at HP point out that this can be a problem where teamwork is involved.

"Where large teams are involved, team management can be a challenge with a work-fromhome option. Ultimately, we don't monitor if employees are actually working. Employees need to be selfdisciplined and accountable for their productivity when they choose this option," said Srikanth Karra, director, human resources, HP India. But for employees like Kumar, it's an incentive worth going for. "I end up working more being away from office, but the freedom to work from anywhere is too good to be missed."

Source ET


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