FPJ Analysis: Narayana Murthy Ties Himself Up In Knots

FPJ Analysis: Narayana Murthy Ties Himself Up In Knots

What is needed isn’t a punishing late-sitting culture but proper assessment of time needed for accomplishing work.

S MurlidharanUpdated: Friday, November 24, 2023, 01:35 AM IST
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Narayana Murthy | Image: Wikipedia

In 2014, the redoubtable Infosys founder Narayana Murthy reportedly found a number of male employees staying back after office hours and shot off a mail to his staff that drew a binary like no one possibly never has — either the organisation is inefficient or the staff is.

In a milieu where late-sitting is worn on one’s sleeve like a badge of honour and employers look disdainfully on those leaving for home on time, his mail won him wide acclaim for gently ripping the late-sitters apart by highlighting the various creature comforts available in the office not available at home, or available at home for a price — like air-conditioners keeping them cool, constant supply of refreshments and beverages sating their appetites at no cost to them, and getting to ride taxis paid for by the company to reach home — not to talk of unhindered usage of high-speed computers aided by high speed internet.

Fast forward to circa 2023. Recently, Murthy made a pitch for employees working 70 hours a week to pull the nation up by the bootstraps like Germany and Japan did post World War II. This newfound nirvana has set the media including social media agog and aflutter. Clearly, the veteran has tied himself into knots with contradictory stances, though his heart is at the right place.

The “compassionate capitalist”

Murthy mentions that being arrested and expelled for no good reason during the communist era 1974 in a border town near the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, turned him into a “compassionate capitalist” from a “confused leftist/Communist”. Indeed, as a compassionate capitalist, he did make peons and drivers of Infosys millionaires with employees’ stock options.

Of the same piece was his speech from the CII pulpit that the CEO salary should not be more than 15 times the lowest salary in the organisation.

But later on, by acquiescing in the American practice of the winner-takes-it-all compensation culture he has reinforced the view that he still remains confused. His own co-founders were mildly aghast when Vishal Sikka the CEO helped himself in 2017 to a whopping salary of ₹73 crore, way above the Lakshman Rekha of 15 times the median salary. Such pampered and overpaid CEOs naturally can work even 100 hours a week but lesser mortals are not going to be amused by Murthy’s latest clarion call.

A healthy work-leisure balance

The leisure-loving French work only 35 hours a week with an hour’s unpaid lunch break every working day. That translates to seven hours a day, assuming a five-day week. There is a need for a healthy work-leisure balance. Not only that, often reaching the place of work takes more than an hour, leaving very little time for the family.

After all, one needs at least a quality six-hour sleep — ideally, eight hours — to feel rejuvenated and stay healthy. Incidentally, employers are increasingly getting disenchanted with the work-from-home culture as it is not conducive to coordination, besides allowing for moonlighting. Employees however aver that working from home exacted a heavy toll on them as often employers burdened them with more work. Be that as it may.

Role of AI in establishments

What is therefore needed isn’t a punishing late-sitting culture but proper assessment of time needed for accomplishing work. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are definitely going to play a greater role in establishments and may elbow out human activity to a great or lesser extent depending on the nature of products and services churned out.

Banking and insurance products and services are brought online thanks to intelligent design of software. In fact, many computer- and net-savvy bank customers do it themselves online without even visiting the branch once a year. With service sector predominating and accounting for the lion’s share of the GDP, there is a tremendous scope for ushering in efficiency and economy through user-friendly software that renders redundant a sizeable section of the workforce.

Modern and technology-driven banks employ very few persons in branches. Contrast this with PSBs that used to employ 20 to 30 persons on an average even in small branches who exemplified Parkinson’s law — work expands to fill the time available for its completion!

Murthy’s exhortation would not find resonance even in factories where overtime at twice the normal rates have to be paid if one works for more than eight hours a day or 48 hours a week. Why should an employer pay double wages for the extra 22 hours a week regularly when he can reduce his overall cost by outsourcing and resort to other expedients? Money makes the mare go. It is idle to expect employees to put in extra hours as a labour of love.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions

The TVS group long ago found that the way to employees’ hearts was through the stomach. Employees were incentivised to come on time with the bait of sumptuous breakfasts. Wives saw off their husbands cheerfully, happy in the knowledge that they don’t have to cook and pack lunch so early in the day, with factory kitchens providing lunch as well. The short point is, slogging is not the only way to endear oneself to superiors, just as it is not the only tool to extract the optimum out of every employee, sulking or willing.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Likewise condemning employees to work for the better part of a day may be recommended with good intentions but might prove to be counterproductive.

S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist and writes on economics, business, legal and taxation issues.

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