Would You Like To Work From Home Forever? Tata Sons’ Chandrasekaran Thinks Not

Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chief executive officer of Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., at a news conference in Brussels. (Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg)

Would You Like To Work From Home Forever? Tata Sons’ Chandrasekaran Thinks Not

Physical offices will continue to play an important role even as companies across the world move to a hybrid workplaces in the aftermath of the pandemic, according to Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran.

“To my mind, it will signify two important things going forward. A place where collaboration really happens and it will become a place where there'll be a lot of social engagements,” Chandrasekaran said at the Qatar Economic Forum. “I’ll tell you today if you ask anyone, would you like to work from home forever? The answer will be no.”

Chandrasekaran said while a hybrid workplace is the future, employees still hold a preference coming to office. “So, we’re getting constant calls asking can we come into work? Can we do this meeting in office? We’ve had three meetings in video, but actually would like to do an ideation session. Can we come into work?”

People will be happy to come into work and at the same time we’ll have the flexibility to work from home. I don’t think will be a difficult thing to get registered to, but what is important is how do you put the processes in place.
N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons

That said, the Tata Group is accelerating its shift to a hybrid model that allows greater flexibility to employees and enables more women to join the workforce, Chandrasekaran said.

He emphasised that the pandemic has given a chance for companies to reinvent workplaces in a way that gender diversity can be improved.

“I think the flexibility in the working styles will certainly bring more women into workforce, that’s for sure,” he said. “I think we should not miss this opportunity. We should kind of tie it all together, because that’s an issue we need to address anyway.”

Watch the entire interview here:

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

Mr. Chandrasekaran, I want to begin with you, and the Tata Group it’s a massive company you have 750,000 employees around the world 150 nationalities. Most of your staff, most of your workforce has been working from home this past year. What does the word office mean to a Tata employee today?

N CHANDRASEKARAN: We have seen a lot of different things happen in the last one year and many of our companies have enabled people to work from home but also we have industrial companies, where people have come in to work in the factories. I think the office is still a very important place. To my mind, it will signify two important things going forward. A place where collaboration really happens and also it will become a place where there’ll be a lot of social engagements. I don’t think that we will be in this current mode forever nor will we go back to the old model, we’ll end up somewhere in between it is being called as hybrid. We can talk about that.

The hybrid model, yes. Mark you are an early pioneer of the shared office space concept. You founded your company then known as Regis, almost 30 years ago. Now it’s easy to say this, move away from the office has been triggered by the pandemic, but do you think this shift was inevitable?

MARK DIXON: The shift was happening anyway. In 2019 and early 2020, we were doing our best trading ever as more and more companies were moving towards hybrid working then and hybrid working is really companies just adopting modern technology, a new way to work, much more flexible, much less costly, much better for the environment, they were doing it anyway. The pandemic just accelerated the adoption. The entire world, more or less of white-collar workers had a forced trial in this new way of working and for most, productivity was maintained in some cases improved and companies realised that they could still continue working in a hybrid way. So, again, I agree with Chandra’s comments, that it will go somewhere in the hybrid. The office still has a very important place, but other types of workloads will be supplemented, and in effect overall, there will be less occupation of core office space and people working closer to where they live and working much more over digital technologies than being crowded together in a single buildings.

Chandra, at the beginning of the pandemic you spoke about the 25-25 strategy, saying that by 2025 you will have only about a quarter of TCS, Tata Consultancy Systems, people in office, but you’ve also said you want people back in the office as soon as it’s safe for them to do so. So, what is the plan for the Tata Group going forward in terms of the split between people working from home or people back in the office?

N CHANDRASEKARAN: I think one thing is clear that we will go to hybrid model. What we mean by Hybrid will evolve. Our thesis is that still many people will continue to work from home. That doesn’t mean that there will be a standard set of people who will always work from home and others will come to work. At any point in time, whether it is 25% people or the number gets tested plus or minus, I don’t know. But what is important is, the people who will form teams will have to be enabled to come to work together. So, it’s not like a random choice that people will make where anyone will decide I’ll come these two days, somebody else will decide I will come once in a fortnight, it will be more designed and structured where people will continue to work in this hybrid model, but at the same time, we will be able to address collaboration, benefits, we will be able to address teams working together, ideating together whenever they have to be together and also make the office a place for social engagement which is going to become very important. So, I think we will move in that direction but it will settle somewhere around about what I told you.

This is interesting to me is how do you find the balance because employees we know for a large part want that flexibility, they want to be able to work from home or from a shared office space, a couple of times a week. At the same time as you pointed out, it’s essential to be in the office and meet your team members for collaboration. As an employer, how do you find that balance, where’s that happy medium?

N CHANDRASEKARAN: So, I think the flexibility will be there. Clearly, since the direction has been accelerated due to the pandemic that flexibility will be there, but at the same time I will tell you today if you ask anyone, would you like to work from home forever? The answer will be no. People are wanting to come back to work. In India, it is still not opened up fully. So, we are getting constant calls, can we come into work? Can we do this meeting in office? We’ve had three meetings in video, but actually would like to do an ideation session, can we come into work? These kind of questions keep coming, so I think people will be happy to come into work and at the same time we have the flexibility to work from home so that hybrid, I don’t think will be a difficult thing to get registered to, but what is important is how do you put the processes in place. For example, when TCS was enabled in 1997- 1998, the first of the people to work from home was within three weeks, it is not about just giving them computers, it’s about the processes, it’s about security, it’s about ensuring productivity, it’s about quality control. How does the whole workflow change? There are a whole lot of things that have to be done. But similarly, when you go to this future model, what is important is, what kind of meetings you do in office and which teams come together. How do we put some framework around it. But I think people will get adjusted in fact they will like it.

Mark, as Chandra pointed out, people are wanting to come back to office. They’re asking him can we come into office to have an ideation meeting. I know your company has had one of the strongest years, ever in terms of demand. Who are the people who are wanting to come into office who are wanting to rent your office spaces? Is it companies, is it individuals where’s this demand coming from, or is it certain pockets of the world where the demand to come back into office is stronger?

MARK DIXON: Firstly, it’s important to just clear up a point here. So, hybrid working in most countries, is a combination of either working from home, working from a local office or working from a company’s head office. The key enemy if you like or the problem in the equation is commuting. It’s the time it takes for an individual to leave their home and arrive at a place at work and I fully agree with Chandra and what the employees are saying and we’ve got the same issue with our own customer base and we have more than 7 million users who want to come into the office. But they want to come in more often to an office that’s local to where they live, and to avoid commuting. So, the beneficiary overall will be the individuals that don’t have to commute as much to save time, to save money its better for the environment, and there’s that, a company needs less fixed space. The companies that are making the change and asked you a question are lots of small companies obviously growing companies but the major change for us and where we’ve seen a step change in demand has been amongst large corporations. Corporations like NTT where we signed up, 300,000 users. Standard Chartered Bank 95,000 users, and a whole range of other companies, we’ve signed up around a million new members and we have another million in the pipeline as companies are looking to change from having an all-fixed space to having less fixed space, and then lots of satellites, where people can drop in just about anywhere and go into an office and work. As Chandra said, they can choose on an app where is the most convenient place to get together and do some work and a group of people get together and do that work. So, it’s a new way of working instead of having everyone go to a fixed space, it’s having people work where it’s convenient and get together where it’s convenient. That could be the head office of the company or it could be a lot of satellite offices that are just out there, it is sort of on a platform, which our platform has 3500 buildings that people can drop into but it does take a lot of curation and changes. As Chandra says, it sort of changes the way companies need to manage the workforce, need to communicate with the workforce, it’s a new way of working, but when done well, its much more efficient and at a much lower cost and it’s what people want.

Mark you’ve talked about staying local and people wanting to avoid the commute which I totally understand. You’ve also talked about the 15-minute city where everything you need, your residence, your office, your entertainment your medical supplies everything is within 15 minutes of where you live. Do you see that taking place? Is that really practical going forward? Is that going to be the new reality?

MARK DIXON: It will become more and more of a new reality and basically the elephant in the room is the environment. Once Covid hopefully, moves away stage right in the middle of the stage, you’re going to see the environment, and you’ve seen the G7 this past week, the environment the major thing everyone’s focused on it and every large company is focused on reducing their footprint, reducing their impact on the planet and sort of adoption of hybrid working and the 15-minute city and 15- minute city is basically creating a much more local market and it’s a much more convenient market. It’s a much more local market, it’s happening in countries like France, where it’s quite well advanced, and it will be something that your kids are going to ask about. Are you involved in this, what are you doing for the planet and getting things more local, which is what the 15-minute city is about. It helps a great deal to reducing commuting miles, whether that’s food, whether that’s people, it can make a huge difference in the long term and it will become a thing of the future. By the way, it’s all facilitated by digital platforms. The 15-minute city can work is working, because the world has become digital and we’ll become more digital in the future. It’s the great facilitator.

Technology is a great facilitator but Chandra I want to ask you, the 15-minute city it seems, ideal to us in many parts of the world but I have to say, I’m a little sceptical to see how a 15-minute city could work out in a place like Mumbai where you can’t get from any point to any point in 15 minutes given the traffic in Mumbai. But do you think a 15-minute city is achievable in a city like Mumbai, even though you are with TCS Tata Consultancy Systems this is part of your job to provide the seamless digital transformation for companies. Can this 15-minute city work in India?

N CHANDRASEKARAN: Let me try to explain it a slightly differently, I think if you see what the pandemic has done is, it has fundamentally accelerated the digital adoption by at least a decade. It is not about only making the technology available. Yes, the technology has been made available, this whole collaborative set of tools, the investments in these tools, a lot of these tools has kind of skyrocketed. But the more important thing is, everyone, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated whatever it is, people living in urban area or rural area, everyone has adopted digital. So digital has become a mainstream and people are very comfortable doing things over a video like we are doing this session. The second part is the hybrid model if it has to work. Let’s not think of it as only office and home. There is going to be a concept of a third place. You may want to call it a satellite office or you may call it whatever, I want to call it a third place. Wherever large communities live, there will be this third place where people come in to sign up to their network, because technology in terms of network, efficiency, productivity, privacy, security all those things will get addressed and level of collaboration will continue to increase. So, there’s a role for third place, that third place will certainly reduce the travel time and you see that the 15-minute city as more of a metaphor, and there will be an impact in every part of the world due to this concept. I really think that the future of work will evolve and we will evolve for the better. We will try to get the best of both worlds. The best of having digital technologies and all these interactions that we are having now, versus the physical interactions and every company will innovate and every company will push. So, we will learn from each other and at some point in time, we will get to a model where we are not only seeing productivity, but also have a situation where people feel they are sufficiently communicating with people, sufficiently getting together with people, sufficiently they are engaged socially—all those things will happen. This is a journey. This is not like January 1, 2022, or June 1, 2022.

Mark, what does this mean for the future of cities? Traditionally every major city has had the office district and the downtown area, as we move away from that to a city which has third space options, etc., what does this mean for what a city will look like going forward?

MARK DIXON: Just coming back to your example of Mumbai, which I’ve experienced on many occasions we have quite a big business in India. In Mumbai, if you were planning it from scratch you’d make into a whole series of 15-minute cities as its such a big place with a big population. So, it is basically neighbourhoods that have all the facilities within them but what you’re going to see is a change and one of the principal changes that will come as a result of this move to hybrid working, and towards things being more local, would be a change in the geographic makeup of countries in particular in Western Europe, particularly in the United States. It is already happening there where the geography gets flattened out more and, basically, a company can employ people anywhere in the U.K., France or the United States. In fact, anywhere in the world to do a particular task, they don’t have to be in proximity to a central office building, which was the restriction in the past. It opens up hiring, it opens up jobs for many more people who can work remotely some of the time and it must be noted that to work successfully, you have to have engagement with your teams or with your people. So working remotely is fine but some of the time, people need to come in and collaborate also quite a lot of the time in order to get the best out of those people for the company but the geography will change, provincial towns rural towns across the world will benefit. Subject to them having good internet, and a good digital platform, those are going to see a renaissance of small towns as more people decide to get quality of life. They can work locally, so why not do it? Cities are fine if you’re young, they are less attractive for many as they get families and so on, and are expensive.

Chandra I wanted to ask you, does greater flexibility in the workplace, will it lead to greater diversity for companies, as well? Will it opened up a chance for people who couldn’t traditionally go to offices and be a part of the workforce, will they now have that opportunity to be part of the workforce?

N CHANDRASEKARAN: Certainly, I think that’s a big positive that I expect will happen. You know the numbers in India, I think many educated women are unable to work, only 23% of women who could be potentially working or working because of all the issues that we know the commuting, the social infrastructure, the help that is needed, and the lack of it and so on so forth. I think the flexibility in the working styles will certainly bring more women into workforce, that’s for sure. I think we should not miss this opportunity. We should kind of tie it all together, because that is an issue we need to address anyway. It’s not only good for the GDP and growth but also it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s an enabler. I think there are four or five big enablers here. One is the evolution of the technology which is kind of making this kind of work possible and the technology will get better and better. With 5G, I think even the video quality, the interaction quality will all become much better. Second thing, I think Mark mentioned it multiple times, the whole sustainability handle. The third thing is, people have pretty much realised that whatever they could do outside they could do it from home—whether it is shopping, whether it is education, whether it is consulting a doctor or everything is happening today from home. So, the question will always be why cant I do it from home? The fourth one is time. I think if I remember, traveling to California from here for a 40-minutes video. I think things like that may not happen because people will accept and both sides will accept that it’s a waste of time let’s try and do it through a digital medium. So, there are multiple factors and it will make economic sense because productivity will go up and also, more people will be able to come into workforce.

Now one of the positives, is greater diversity but one of the downsides of working from home for a prolonged period of time is mental health and we have seen that affect large swathes of the population globally over the last year. Mark, I want to come to you with that. How do you see the new model or a hybrid model supporting mental health?

MARK DIXON: Look, I think it comes back to this a few times, it’s not about only working from home. I think, a company that only has people working from home, if they were to do that and there will be some jobs that are suited to a work from home situation in particular as Chandra said. If you have, you can bring a lot more women into the workplace, if they don’t have to commute, if they can choose their hours and technology allows them to work from home. But if people are working from home you have to put a lot more effort into communication, making them feel involved, making them feel part of a team, you have to use the technology to bring people together. But better than that if you can, is to actually bring people together. So, the cities overall still have a purpose to actually bring people together, there are generally convenient places to bring people together either for collaboration or congratulation. But companies will have to focus on this, because having a distributed workforce, may be better for the environment, it may be cheaper and it may be what people want, but it will involve companies having to adapt the way they operate to focus much more on the individual. What they save, they need to reinvest some of that in bringing people together and communicating well with them.

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