It’s the turn of the large conglomerates to bite the bullet. If technology and new economy firms took the lead so far in shielding their employees from coronavirus, now the traditional big groups including the Tatas, and Reliance are taking unusual measures to cope with the growing health hazard. Speaking in one voice, corporate India is asking its people to reduce travel, limit meetings and adopt stringent hygiene standards. Some of them are allowing work from home and advising self-isolation in what looks like a new normal.
Manufacturing plants have not caught up with work from home yet. Unlike the services sector, people in manufacturing do not need to travel extensively outside the premises and this offers a natural immunity, especially if it is also linked to a township.
That apart, other steps are being taken proactively by business majors with deep presence in manufacturing. For instance, every person stepping into the Reliance premises is being thermally screened. “We have asked anyone with symptoms of flu etc to isolate themselves. Fortunately, in the last one month there has not been much of international travel and we did not need to quarantine any of our executives,” said a Reliance spokesman.
Reliance has formed a special group to monitor the situation and brief the chairman and the executive directors every day. Meetings that require more than 20 people in one room are avoided. Carmaker Maruti Suzuki has told employees to use teleconferencing and video conferencing instead. At Tata Sons, at least two employees have self-quarantined and are working from home as they have just returned from coronavirus-affected countries.
"These persons have not tested positive, it's just a precaution,” said a person familiar with the matter. The holding company has issued an advisory to Tata Group employees to avoid non-essential travel and large gatherings.
Tata Steel has suspended all business travel, domestic and international, until further notice. It is disabling the biometric-based attendance system as a precaution. Coal India has told staff to avoid handshakes and use the namaste greeting.
ITC is putting together a business continuity plan to address potential contingencies. Its own Savlon hand rub dispensers are kept at prominent places. Here too, all international travel is suspended. Anyone coming from abroad first has to meet the company doctor before doing anything else.
Companies such as Coca-Cola, Godrej Consumer and Uber have all given their employees the option to work from home given that most employees are connected via laptops and phones.
The result of this mass migration to homes is that offices in the central business districts of Mumbai such as Bandra, BKC and Worli are looking sparsely populated.
Those who have not already moved to the ‘work from home’ principle, are going to start soon. From Monday, Star India staff will work from home. “In light of the ongoing COVID-19 developments, to minimize the risk, we have decided that effective Monday, all our offices across India will shift to work-from-home status until further notice,” said a Star India spokesperson.
However, companies that are part of the stock market ecosystem find it difficult to issue a work-from-home directive. Mutual fund managers have to follow a certain work ethic to curb insider trading or front running. Along with the analyst community, they have to make extensive use of office infrastructure like data terminals which is difficult to replicate at home.
An industry official said that if the situation worsens, they might have to seek regulatory approvals before moving certain functions to homes. Meanwhile, India’s largest brokerage in terms of active clients, Zerodha, has ordered all its 1,200 employees to work from home.
A string of companies, including the Mahindra Group, have asked pregnant women not to come to the office. Insurance company HDFC Life has given all pregnant women the option of working from home.
Another insurer, ICICI Lombard, is preparing for exigencies. "We have conducted drills at our key offices to ensure that we are able to service customers and settle claims if our employees need to operate from home. We are apprising customers on this aspect and reassuring them that our health insurance policies cover hospitalization due to coronavirus,” said Sanjay Datta, head of Underwriting, Reinsurance & Claims, ICICI Lombard General Insurance.
Several of the country’s drug makers have cancelled their sales conferences and domestic trips. "The hospital sales teams practically cannot meet doctors now as they are not allowed to enter the premises at most places," said a leading pharma giant.
At Bharti Airtel, it is work as usual in the office though with lots of hand sanitisers, deep cleaning, and thermal screening. Vodafone Idea has issued advisories related to travel, cleanliness, and work from home options.
India's top law firms too are gearing up with preventive measures. Dina Wadia Partner and Member of Executive Committee, J Sagar Associates said that they had all contingency plans in place including banning non-essential travel and work from home facility. She said that they are fully geared for this and are also testing its efficacy by having half work from office and half from home and all work from home for a few days this week. Like her, Shweta Shroff Chopra, Partner at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co said that from the day the first case was reported in India, her firm had put in all emergency response measures in place including WHO protocols, safety resources (60 per cent alcohol based sanitisers, masks, disposable eco-friendly crockery, etc), disabled biometric access and put in place more frequent deep cleaning measures, across all its offices.
With inputs from Pavan Lall, Subrata Panda, Samie Modak, Abhijeet Lele, Megha Manchanda, Shally Seth Mohile, Ishita Ayan Dutt, Avishek Rakshit, Viveat Susan Pinto, Raghavendra Kamath, Vinay Umarji, Jash Kriplani and Sohini Das