Moonlight Sonata in IT major: Why part-time work may cause a double disruption in India | marketrealtime.com


Before discussing India’s information technology companies, I have to tell you a bad joke about Beethoven. It seems some people heard music emanating from the musician’s grave after his body was buried, and it turned out to be the reverse of one of his symphonies. On closer examination, they found that Beethoven was, well, decomposing.

Ouch! Apart from apologising for a bad pun, I must say I was reminded of this joke for two reasons. Beethoven happens to be the writer of the Moonlight Sonata, and, as India’s software companies furiously discuss moonlighting by their employees, I am just wondering if the industry, in its own way, is decomposing!

I have seen cycles come and go in India’s codesmith industry, and admired its amazing capacity to adopt and adapt, and, in the process, turn adept. I am sure this will be the case again. But there is writing on the wall for geeks who want to eat the cake and have it too: Two can play this game.

Bangalore-based major software giant Wipro has walked its talk by firing 300 employees on the ground that they were working part-time for competitors, and companies including industry leader Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys have made similar noises against moonlighting. It is only fair that employees do not work for competitors of their employers, but there is more to it than meets the eye, for which you need to understand both the evolution and the landscape of the industry.

I still remember my first visit to the Infosys campus circa 1995, when it had only 500 employees, and a company spokeswoman proudly showed me a bus that transported workers from central Bangalore to the suburban Electronic City. That was an innocent era in which employees were happy to get a well-paying job, job security, a company-backed home loan, a generous canteen, and free transport. 

From there on to big bonuses, onsite work in the US that offered a route to the American Dream Green Card, get-rich-quick stock options, startup ambitions, and unusual perks (NIIT once offered a dating allowance, okay?), things have come a long way. The urge to eat the cake and have it too does not stop.

Employers are not babes in the wood either. From luring employees to putting in long hours by dangling onsite postings or inflating job titles, they keep doing their part. You could say it is par for the course, but technology and circumstances keep changing the landscape.

I remember visiting software facilities in which data protection was so strict that employees were not allowed to carry floppy diskettes or pen drives in or out. They were suitably frisked to ensure safety. Moving from there to the iPad-driven Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) culture for employees and then on to the Covid pandemic-driven Work From Home (WFH) era, software companies have cut costs and improved flexibility at the same time. But the flip side of the coin is the Moonlighting Syndrome. Now that the pandemic seems well on its way out, employers are discovering the downside of the WFH culture and doing something about it.

The Wipro move is certainly a wake-up call for employees because they cannot easily enjoy job security, WFH, and five-day weeks and then get some extra bucks from moonlighting. But equally so, it means that for the industry as a whole, employers have to compete for talent in a way that optimises their profits. Smart people can work faster and better, and incentivising them means giving them competitive salaries that are better linked to output than time. The IT industry has historically worked on the T&M (time and materials) principle, which critics say was only sophisticated body-shopping. With bandwidth and devices now coming easy, creativity and loyalty also need to be properly priced by human resource professionals. Loyalty is difficult to calculate for employers. The war for talent is real, while high expectations among employees have become the new normal. 

Just like Generation Z and Millennial relationships, the IT industry has moved from long-term marriages to “something casual” and on the way, it has become, in Facebookspeak, a case of the status becoming “complicated”.  

This is because IT companies have their own “employment models” that go with business models. Take for instance Tech Mahindra, which ranks below the bigger giants like Wipro. 

Its CEO CP Gurnani does not mind employees moonlighting if they meet other criteria like productivity and is thinking of making it a policy! This is because a moonlight-inclusive policy may lower costs for a smaller company to compete with the giants.

Such a move is a potential time bomb for employees because, over time, every company may evolve its own strategy in which only the smartest employees can get away with flexible hours or higher salaries. What stops Wipro or Infosys from partnering with boutique companies and turning the tables on employees? I won’t rule it out. Wipro’s move is certainly a warning but it also means HR challenges in which IT companies can no longer treat employees like cyber coolies. They must explicitly recognise the men/women and separate them from the boys/girls. This involves management costs.

Also, something must be said about teamwork. WFH reduces the scope for easy teamwork and focus that can enhance both the quality and quantity of output. The best companies encourage collaboration.

The giant-run boutique model is quite common in marketing, communications, and advertising. The London-listed WPP Plc is essentially a holding company that runs a global network of dozens of agencies. I don’t rule out an IT major evolving into that model.

I can even imagine a dystopian scenario in which smarter employees turn into high-value gig workers or smart boutique owners while some companies turn into boutique aggregators to manage costs and boost creativity. That will leave your regular software army of low-end coding clerks in the lurch with less pay and less job security. I call it the double disruption scenario.

The fact is that, from IBM’s mainframe computers that occupied whole buildings to smartphones with that kind of a capacity resting on your palm, the evolution in technology has thrown new challenges all the time. Neither employees nor employers can take anything for granted. Like in relationships, break-ups may become common. 

But then, everybody is looking for love while dominating in a relationship or doing some plain old cheating. Someone somewhere has to face the music — with apologies to Beethoven.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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