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Could a shorter work-week be the key to bringing reluctant employees back to office

Source: Economic Times

In 2017, procurement intelligence and analytics firm Beroe decided to go where few employers had gone before. The software-as-a-service provider, which is headquartered in the US but has 350 of its 400 employees in India, announced it was rolling out a trial for a four-day workweek for a quarter, without any cut in compensation or benefits, in a bid to find answer to the quest for work-life balance.

The trial was a resounding success and five years and a pandemic later, the company is clear there is no going back. As other employers switch between carrot and stick to get reluctant employees back into their cubicles, Anand Narayanan, Beroe’s vice-president, marketing, HR and administration, says this is one problem they don’t have. “Our new office in Chennai is getting ready to welcome employees in November, but we are clear — work can be done anywhere.” As a result, the company, he says, has faced “zero pushback from employees, many of whom voluntarily come in to our temporary office today two-three times a week”.

With the pandemic on the wane, corporate leaders and human resource departments across India Inc appear to be doubling down on getting employees, who have got used to working from home (WFH), back to office. But the process is hardly seamless. For instance, IT behemoth TCS —which announced in November 2021 that by 2025 only 25% employees will work from office (WFO) at any given time—wants most of its employees in office thrice a week. In September, ET reported that the company is struggling to convince the majority of its millennial employees to work from office.

Beroe’s experience raises the question whether experiments like the one it embarked on might be an alternative to returning to the five- or six-days-in-office grind.

Future workplace

This comes at a time when a global trial of the four-day workweek is under way in over 200 companies in six countries, steered by the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, with early data showing that productivity has not taken a backseat with less time in office. “Our programme encourages businesses to engage with their staff to find ways to be more productive so that time can be reduced without reducing pay. The same process will also help businesses find the future workplace strategy that works for the business as well as its people,” Charlotte Lockhart, MD and cofounder of 4 Day Week, told ET.

However, experts in organisational behaviour in India are sceptical about more Indian companies switching to a four-day week. Considering the keenness of employers to have employees back in office, a four-day workweek might be a step too soon, feels Nishith Mohanty, client partner, Korn Ferry, India. “If you are not in office, it will be viewed as a loss of productive time,” says Mohanty. Currently, in most organisations, it’s either a complete return to office, no questions asked, or predominantly work from office with the option of WFH five days in a month. “These two models account for 90-95% of what we see in the market. There is no four-day week conversation among our clients,” he says.

It is hard to imagine that a shorter workweek would not lead to productivity losses, says Nikhil Madan, assistant professor of organisational behaviour, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Moreover in India, where there is a surplus of labour for many roles, it’s hard to see organisations bow down, if employees were to seek such a policy. “It would be an uphill battle,” he says. The only potential upside for the organisation, he says, is employees being happier, and hence working more.

Employee satisfaction may well be the reason 49% of respondents in a survey of companies participating in the UK pilot of four-day week said productivity had improved, while 46% said it had stayed the same. This seems to have been the experience of Beroe as well. Says Narayanan: “We implemented it hoping to achieve some balance between productivity and employee work-life but what we realised very quickly is that it helps dramatically improve productivity, employee retention and engagement and keeps those metrics persistently high.”

In India, HR experts say companies have largely swung back to pre-pandemic practices for various reasons, ranging from loss of productivity to fear of loss of control. ISB’s Madan says employers typically want people to return to office for very clear reasons: “Unless it’s a job that involves little interdependence on others and is mundane and repetitive, there is some productivity deficit when employees work from home. That could be due to monitoring issues. Also, collaboration suffers, even though we have a lot of tools that make it possible (virtually).”

Mentoring, particularly of young employees, has also suffered due to WFH, says Mohanty. The drive to get staff back to the workplace also stems from the boss’s need to have employees around, he says. “Many leaders feel the need to have their teams with them — to feel important, to have a sense of identity, to have a sense of control. This is the old school way of working: if I don’t see you, I don’t have control over you.” Talent is rejecting this and demanding more flexibility, leading to the current impasse.

energy audit

A recent Microsoft Work Trend survey among 20,000 employees in 11 countries highlights the diverging views between employers and employees when it comes to productivity and the hybrid model. While the majority of employees (87%) reported that they were productive at work, 85% leaders said the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. “And as some organisations use technology to track activity rather than impact, employees lack context on how and why they are being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to ‘productivity theater’. This paradox has led to productivity paranoia: where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased,” the report said.

There are exceptions. In July, food delivery unicorn Swiggy announced a permanent work-from-anywhere policy for the majority of its roles. Infosys CEO Salil Parekh recently reiterated that the company would continue to not mandate a fixed number of days in office since its flexible approach was well-received. Consultancy Deloitte moved to hybrid as the default mode of working. “We are seeing the benefits of professionals having the convenience and flexibility of WFH, blended with the in-person interaction and collaboration that comes from an office setup,” says SV Nathan, partner and chief talent officer, Deloitte India. The model, he says, also helps with the mental wellness of employees, with inperson meetings and interactions helping alleviate the isolation that complete WFH might trigger.

With employees perceiving clear benefits to WFH, Madan says leaders need to figure out their organisational context and if there’s scope for both sides to do better, “rather than perceive it as a zero-sum situation”. At Beroe, too, the switch to a permanent four-day work week was subject to certain conditions. “If at any time our productivity, quality of output, or customer feedback drops, we said we would re-evaluate the arrangement. In short, the four-day work week is a responsibility, not a right,” says Narayanan.

Though it may be too early for India Inc to consider switching to a four-day week, Mohanty suggests they try other hacks to lay the foundation for it, like “no-meeting Fridays” which can be devoted to deep or collaborative work. Meanwhile, old-school management can learn to be okay with the fact that if they send a (non-critical) mail on Thursday, they will get a reply only on Monday. “If this works,” says Mohanty, “we’ll be ready for a four-day workweek.”