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UPDATE 1-India's huge outsourcing industry struggles with work-from-home scenario

Wed, 25th Mar 2020 22:30

(Adds Qualcomm statement)

By Sankalp Phartiyal and Sachin Ravikumar

NEW DELHI/BENGALURU, March 25 (Reuters) - As the coronavirus
pandemic pushes India into a lockdown, the call centres and IT
services firms that function as the world's back office are
struggling to piece together work-from-home solutions and other
business-continuity plans.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered 1.3 billion
Indians to stay at home for 21 days to stem the spread of
SARS-CoV-2, following earlier lockdown orders in many Indian
cities and states. As of Tuesday, India had reported over 500
cases of the virus and nine deaths.

Many of the companies that provide business services such as
call centres, information technology services and business
process automation were not prepared for work-for-home
arrangements, according to interviews with more than a dozen
employees of several companies.

That raises questions about whether one of India's showpiece
industries can function smoothly amid the coronavirus crisis.

"The industry has been scrambling to set up its own business
continuity plan," said R. Chandrashekhar, a retired federal
government official and a former president of India's IT
services lobby group, NASSCOM.

In the southern tech hub of Bengaluru, an employee working
at a JPMorgan call centre said that until last Friday,
her managers had repeatedly declined staffers' pleas to work
from home.

"Even if I am infected with the virus, I know the death rate
for young people isn't very high, but I am very very scared that
I might transfer it to family," she said on condition of
anonymity, as she was not authorised to speak to the media.

After a state government order, JPMorgan on Sunday asked its
Bengaluru staff to "stay at home until further notice,"
according to a message to employees seen by Reuters.

In some cases, companies must seek client permission before
allowing employees to work on sensitive projects outside the
office, a senior human resources executive at a top Indian IT
firm said of working remotely.

"These days the challenge is not really the technology, the
challenge is the regulations, and, in case something goes wrong,
who's going to take the responsibility," the person said on
condition of anonymity.

Indian software services firms, led by Tata Consultancy
Services and Infosys, gained prominence by
giving Western clients low-cost solutions to routine computer
problems. Over time, they assumed a major role at many global
companies.

Three employees of midsize IT services firm Mphasis
in the western Indian city of Pune said they were all
being asked to come to the office until last Friday, even as
some expressed concerns about working in close proximity with
roughly 90 other people.

Maharashtra state, where Pune is located, had imposed
restrictions on private company employees going to offices in an
effort to curb the spread of the virus. But it made exemptions
for essential services including some IT companies.

During the past week, security guards barred employees from
venturing outside one of the Mphasis offices in Pune to avoid
attracting the police, fearing a forced shutdown, two employees
said, declining to be named as they were not authorised to speak
to the media.

One said a human resources executive told him not to wear a
mask as it would "panic people who come to work".

As Maharashtra enforced a curfew starting Monday, some
Mphasis employees were being asked to remain home this week,
even though they lacked equipment such as laptops, the employees
said.

Mphasis said in a statement that not all of its staff were
working remotely. But the company said it was speaking with
clients and trying to enable as many people as possible to work
from home while ensuring employee safety.

An employee of French tele-services provider Teleperformance
on the outskirts of Delhi said his company had been
reluctant to let staff work from home. But he said employees
were finally told Sunday the company would begin installing
corporate desktop computers at their homes after a wider
lockdown in several cities.

JPMorgan and Teleperformace did not respond to requests for
comment.

Some have been able to make a temporary and quick transition
to the work-from-home scenario.

Qualcomm Inc, the world's biggest supplier of
"modem" chips that connect mobile phones and other devices to
wireless data networks, said about 90% of its workforce in India
was able log in to work-from-home since the lockdown started in
the country.

"I can tell you that in the last 24hrs 90% of Qualcomm's
workforce in India logged in, indicating that our employees have
been pivoted well to working from home", a Qualcomm spokeswoman
said in an emailed statement.

India's home ministry, in guidelines issued on Tuesday,
advised states to exempt essential IT and IT-enabled services
from the national lockdown. NASSCOM, the lobbying group, said
several states had listed IT and e-commerce among essential
services that are exempt.
(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal and Sachin Ravikumar;
Additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila, Kanishka Singh in
Bengaluru and Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai. Editing by Jonathan
Weber, Gerry Doyle and Tom Brown)

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