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Creating a Thriving Remote, Secure and Agile Workplace

N. Ganapathy Subramaniam
Chief Operating Officer & Executive Director, TCS


Essential points:  

  • Last March, TCS had to rapidly shift and support 96% of its 470,000 employees from working at its offices to working from home.
  • But the company for years had already put key pieces in place by dispersing and synchronizing thousands of agile teams.
  • TCS’ 26,000+ client projects haven’t missed a beat, employee satisfaction is strong, and making clients’ remote workers more productive has now become a major service offering.


History is replete with examples of how technology has reshaped the workplace. Over time, its ubiquity has quietly made the transition seamless, leaving us to ponder the social, environmental and human implications of the transformation. However, the global pandemic of 2020 has brought profound, and perhaps irreversible, changes to the way work gets done in organizations. Change that had evolved incrementally over decades have accelerated to fundamental changes in only months.

The workplace evolution since March at Tata Consultancy Services, the company I have been at for nearly 40 years, is emblematic of this abrupt shift. With 470,000 employees in 46 countries around the world, TCS’ own workplace transformation has been substantial. Before the pandemic, more than 90% of our people worked from 285 TCS offices in 46 countries. The pandemic forced us to flip that number on its head. Today, 98% of TCS employees work from home. 

Given that we are a consulting and IT services company whose primary assets walk down corridors, sit in offices and collaborate closely across continents through sophisticated technology, you might think that it’s been difficult for those human assets to perform at the level they’re used to. If you thought that, you would be wrong, as our clients will tell you. If anything, our employees are by and large more productive than they were in the past.

That has amazed our clients and, frankly, our senior management team. Going into the office every day, we had thought that workforce productivity was a function of how productive we could make our workplaces. We had improved that quite well over the years, to reach $49,000 in revenue per employee in 2020, a 25% rise over the past decade. We designed more ergonomic workspaces, built nicer cafeterias and meeting rooms, invested in better office technology and made a host of other improvements.

But the pandemic has taught us a shocking and important lesson: a highly productive workforce doesn’t actually have to go to our places of work. They can be just as, if not more, productive from home—if they have the right technology and (more importantly) the right leadership practices that keep them focused and energized.

What’s more, we have found that remote working is a tactical response that can work for a period of time—if employees can use technology to do their work (such as ours can). Doing their work includes being able to interact and collaborate with their colleagues and clients.

However, simply telling employees to work from home using the technology we have given them is not nearly enough to transform the way TCS does its work. Our workplace operating model transformation will come from reimagining the way we deliver our services. It will also come from revamping the way we manage our people and handle other governance issues.

Eliminating long, costly and frustrating commutes from home will only satisfy some employees for a certain period of time. Management at TCS is learning quickly that making the remote employee feel as if he or she is even more central to our organization’s success is what will keep them productive, content and motivated to continue working for us and do their best for our clients.

The pandemic forced us to completely rethink our current workplace model, initially for business continuity reasons. Most of our business continuity plans (site outage, city outage, country outage variations) assumed that our staff would be available at a location that remained open. In other words, our plans were designed to deal with local shutdowns.

The pandemic forced us to scrap those plans. It meant we couldn’t guarantee clients we’d have staff available to service them from another TCS location. Most of our locations were forced to close, and so were most of our clients’ locations. Nonetheless, we were quickly able to shift our office workers to operate from their homes, and thus honor our guarantee to clients that our people would be there to support them.

How we’ve accomplished that to date is the story I want to tell. It’s a story that we refer to as “securing a borderless workplace.” (By proving it first on ourselves and having clients ask us to do it for their employees, we have actually turned it into a service for our clients. We call it TCS Secure Borderless Workspaces™, or SBWS.) I believe our lessons may be valuable to other companies—both our “hits” and our “misses”—in shifting our work from our workplaces to our employees’ homes.

So let’s let the story begin.

The Foundation: A Distributed Agile Approach

It wasn’t through magic that we were able to go in weeks from having hundreds of thousands of employees working from offices to having them work in their homes. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had put several pieces in place years ago.

The first piece was an approach to managing agile work teams whose team members couldn’t be in the same room. We called our agile model the Location Independent Agile™. It was an alternative to overcome the biggest constraints for agile teams: that they couldn’t always do their planning in the same room, as that credo of agilists everywhere (the Agile Manifesto written in 2001) insisted upon.

Large corporations, with employee work teams that can span time zones, for years have needed to have their agile team members working from different offices, often on different continents. Our approach to agile enabled our teams to collaborate in real-time across geographies and iteratively develop new digital business processes for clients. Their goal: deliver a minimum viable product quickly.

Concurrently, we were investing in “Open Agile Collaborative Workspaces” (OACW). Please note that I didn’t use the word “workplaces.” By “workspaces,” I refer to computers that our employees could carry with them that were replete with collaboration software and tap into data and applications that we stored in the cloud. And since that data and applications were in the cloud rather than a computer room at one of our offices, that meant we had to shore up their security from being hacked. We have done that, in part through continually monitoring them and using automation to detect abnormal accesses.

TCS employees who use our OACW can work from anywhere within our facilities.

Our approach to agile enabled our teams to collaborate in real-time across geographies and iteratively develop new digital business processes for clients.

Workplace Transformation at TCS

Based on having those two pieces in place—a distributed approach to managing agile teams and the technology that allowed those team members to work anywhere—we rapidly shifted our work from our offices to employees’ homes. We surprised ourselves about how fast it could be done. Some 96% of our 470,000 employees were working remotely within three weeks. They were delivering more than 26,000 projects to our clients from home and achieving the service-level agreements we had agreed to with our customers.

As I wrote this article:

  • Less than 2% of our people are coming to office facilities.
  • Nearly 100% of our people are productively engaged from wherever they are, feeling safe and secure.
  • In numerous client projects, we are seeing improved velocity, throughput and team productivity.
  • Overall employee satisfaction is improving.
  • The average time employees are spending on our virtual training curricula is ticking up.
  • The algorithms we have deployed are able, over time, to understand the patterns and normal behaviors of our work, track pending areas of work assigned or taken up by individuals and nudge our people to complete their assignments.
  • Our teams across the globe are experimenting successfully with a number of new ways to collaborate and divide labor, to manage the peaks and troughs of client demands.

The feedback from our employees and our clients has been so positive that TCS announced its 25x25 operating model vision. What that means is that by 2025, up to 25% of TCS’ workforce will work out of TCS facilities at any time to achieve 100% productivity, with associates spending only 25% of their time in the office. And within project teams, only 25% of employees can be co-located.

Figure 1: TCS Secure Borderless Workspaces™ 25 x 25 Operating Model: 25% workforce in facilities to achieve 100% productivity by 2025

Lessons Learned

Based on our experience, what should organizations that want to achieve something similar do to make it happen? We see five areas to think about:

1. Design Workplaces.

The new workplace model will have to maximize the creative and collaborative potential of a shared space, allowing for all individual and synchronous work to be done outside of it, remotely. Teams in the future will be distributed geographically as opposed to being located in centralized, downtown-type locations.


2. Knowledge Experiences for Ambient Awareness.

One of the disadvantages of remote work is the lack of ambient awareness in individuals and teams i.e., people’s ability to see non-verbal and other signs of behavior. The ability to digitally enable ambient awareness and deliver contextual knowledge to remote employees when they need it presents a problem that we think a combination of culture change and technology—such as augmented and virtual reality technologies supported by advanced algorithms—can solve in the years ahead.

3. Physically Distanced but Socially Connected.

With a large number of remote employees, organizations must stay in touch with them more frequently. It requires hyperconnected leadership—i.e., managers who constantly interact (two-way, not one way) with employees. In a time of physical distancing, social connections become more crucial.


4. Adopt and Humanize Automation.

Automation merely for the sake of cutting labor costs will have diminishing returns. Automation designed to make people more productive is more important.


5. Trust, Self-Governance and Results.

Remote working will change the nature of middle management. Micromanagement and traditional command-and-control structures will simply not work or scale. Work must be self-governed and outcomeoriented, as opposed to purely task- and time-oriented methods of management. Organizations must empower employees with digital tools that measure, benchmark and improve their performance.

Extending the Benefits of Remote Work

From our experience, we believe that remote work will not only be a short-term response to a crisis. It will be a new way of structuring work that will offer significant benefits.

The pandemic has given TCS the opportunity to question every constraint we had been operating under previously in designing where and how we did our work. Our experience has been a huge and pleasant surprise for us, our employees and our clients. 

From our experience, we believe that remote work will not only be a short-term response to a crisis. It will be a new way of structuring work that will offer significant benefits.

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