Workers return to new environment as companies reimagine workspaces

For Italian brake-maker Brembo, the Central government’s decision to ease the from the first week of June came as a false dawn. In mid-June, the Tamil Nadu government jammed on the brakes by announcing a complete in four districts.

Close to a hundred employees were supposed to return to work. The challenge now was how to get them to the Brembo plant in Chennai. So for about a month, the House of Hiranandani Group moved 30 workers, who lived in towns outside Chennai, to luxury apartments near the factory.

Ever since the government went into an “unlock” mode for economic activities, companies have gone into overdrive to bring back the most critical part of their operations: the workforce.

J Subramanian, Keller Ground Engineering India head (HR), has no qualms in admitting that the corporate world had for years taken the working class for granted, and that a course correction is on in a post-Covid world. “We have realised the power of the migrant workforce. We know how important they are to our ecosystem,” Subramanian said at a recent panel discussion by Teamlease on the impact of the pandemic on manufacturing.

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The manufacturing sector is reimagining workspaces to infuse confidence in workers. For instance, face readers, retina scanners and swipe cards have replaced biometric attendance. And employees are allowed to have meals at their workstations to avoid crowding the canteen. Companies such as Brembo are planning to buy sensors that will sound an alarm if employees come within one metre of each other in common areas.

“We have restructured our factory floors to adopt what we call ‘micro zoning’. Employees have been categorised to work in these zones,” said M S Unnikrishnan, managing director and CEO of engineering firm Thermax.

Organisations have also been taking confidence-boosting measures. Automotive component manufacturer Varroc Engineering is sending homoeopathic medicines with prescriptions to its employees every month, and has replaced its evening tea with kadha, an immunity-boosting drink. It is also offering mental health counselling over the phone.

“If you build a healthy relationship with your employees, they will be motivated to come to work,” said Unnikrishnan, also the chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Committee on Industrial Relations.

To make them feel safe, companies are relying on the mobile phone applications of workers for contact tracing. Global telecom firm Orange Business Services has a mobile app that employees have to download and answer questions that it poses to them. The app alerts the firm if an employee has come from a containment zone.

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Employees have to show a “green signal” on the app before entering the premises.

Maruti Suzuki is tracking close to 50,000 employees real-time through an in-house mobile app that keeps a tab on their sense of taste and smell, and other potential Covid-19 symptoms.

But the exodus is still fresh in the minds of the poor who suffered the neglect of the corporate world. Anwar, 40, who identifies by his first name, works at construction projects in the National Capital Region. During the lockdown, he and his colleagues sent a distress message demanding better facilities from their employer, the United Group. It went viral, prompting a response from the construction firm.

What made him stay back? “I wasn’t sure how safe I would be in Bihar. Also, my employers Tata Group and Larsen & Toubro continued to pay salary even during the lockdown.”

When some in the management at a construction site where he worked tested Covid-19 positive, Anwar didn’t panic. He temporarily relocated to another site. “None of the workers got infected,” he said. “Only the executives who sit in AC rooms tested positive.”