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This article, like many others, was first published exclusively for long-term supporters, 14 hours before everyone else got to read it.

Khaitan makes work-from-home default till 2020-end • Bigger office plans on hold

Ghost towns, not just for lawyers
Ghost towns, not just for lawyers

Khaitan & Co has made working-from-home from a distance the default until the end of 2020, bearing in mind a variety of factors and routines upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have decided that we will give everyone the work from home option till end December 2020,” Khaitan director HR, Amar Sinhji, said after we contacted him for comment following an announcement at the firm made earlier this week.

“So we felt that it was just a common sense, practical and safe thing to stay with work from home until December 2020. If something (like a miracle vaccine) changes the situation before that, we will see. However, as optimistic as I may be, that seems highly unlikely,” he added.

There were several reasons for the firm’s internal strategy.

One was about staff who may have family members in other parts of the country and would prefer to be (or be stuck) in cities were Khaitan did not have an office.

“Let us say that your hometown is Chennai but you are stuck in Mumbai, with no clue as to when things will get back to normal / open up completely. So you now have the option to go back to Chennai and be with your family or at your family home where the overall family / social support systems make life far easier and you just continue to work from there,” Sinhji said.

The long game: Emotionally and physically tiring

Furthermore, most big firms appear to have at least somewhat been able to get used to remote working.

“The physical location of the workplace in the current context, has become irrelevant,” commented Sinhji. “Use of technology can create your playground wherever it is now convenient for you to play the game from - you no longer need to go to the stadium!

“Lots of people like that, especially those who live alone or are struggling without any domestic help, with young children or have parents who are alone and many who come from smaller towns can now take the call to go to their family / home for a longer period of time and get some stability and support. Many were physically worn out and this should give them an option to readjust and settle in for a longer period of time.”

Uncertain times

Then there is the problem that no one - neither politicians, nor public health professionals, nor law firm managing partners - seem to know exactly how long the ‘new normal’ will last and exactly how it will pan out.

“There is also the uncertainty of complete lockdowns whenever the spread becomes uncontrollable,” said Sinhji. “As an example, a couple of weeks ago we opened up Bangalore - up to 50% attendance - but with a complete lockdown there now, nobody can go to work. And nobody can tell when the lockdown will get eased up.

“And of course there is very limited public transport - so it is only when the suburban rail networks start that we can say things have truly opened up.”

How did opening offices go?

Khaitan had tried in June to tentatively open its offices to very limited capacities, so we asked how many people actually took up the offer of going to work physically.

“Calcutta and Bangalore had quite a substantial attendance, almost 30% of the total strength was present,” said Sinhji, but added: “Bombay and Delhi the attendance was wafer thin - less than 10%, for the obvious reasons of lockdowns / containment zones and the fact that there is no public transport (suburban rail).”

“There’s no point going to office,” added Sinhji, mincing no words. “You risk being infected during the commute to and fro, and certainly being in a closed and centrally air conditioned environments is not recommended.

“Also most large commercial complexes and individual offices are operating with no or minimal services and bare minimum staff. So if one was in office - it would be a struggle to get basic support services that we once took for granted.

“Some of the bigger complexes are a shadow of the beehive of activities that they once were - almost like ghost towns today.”

Mumbai expansion on hold: so could firms give up on office space and save some cash?

Sinhji said: “I think it’s too early to take that kind of a call, of changing a business model overnight that’s been running for more than a 100 years [with physical offices].

“We will not give up existing property in the near future. We have invested heavily in a certain level of infrastructure and we would be very careful before we dismantle all that.”

That said, things are not the same as they have been for 100 years either.

“We were planning to take some extra space in Mumbai, which we may not take now, but I don’t think anybody is at the stage where they will give up their offices completely,” explained Sinhji. “We will certainly rationalise physical space going forward, now that we know that work from home is a very viable and practical option for quite a few functions / roles and may actually make life easier in terms of time wasted in commuting long distances.

“The long held belief that it could be possible for a large majority to work remotely has now become a reality. However, everyone needs to think this through rationally and with some long term vision before rushing to create new operating models.”

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