Roughly 100,000 revenue-earning employees are estimated to have turned into unbilled ‘benched’ talent in the past year alone, according to sources from the IT industry and placement firms. ‘Utilisation rates’ in some leading IT firms have dipped below 70% and an estimated 3.25 lakh of the 1.3-million strong IT workforce are now idle.
But unlike in the last slowdown, IT firms are now walking the extra mile to keep the ‘benched workforce’ engaged, even as they seek to balance P&L pressures and talent management compulsions.
Last quarter, Infosys rolled out Pathfinder Next, an initiative where staff on bench can work on internal projects and assignments, and have access to technology, business domains and other service lines. "Through the programme, employees get job enrichment, vertical and lateral career exposure and access to opportunities," a company spokesperson said.
Infosys had also launched SmartStaffing, a portal specifically created for those on the bench, in February. It enables employees not working on any project to reach out directly to delivery managers and designated unit talent managers and apply for any of the requirements that are vacant. Infy’s utilisation dipped from 69% to 68% in the past year, but it expects the figure to improve to 69-71% in the coming quarters.
Sharp focus on benched employees
"We are doing not one but many things (to boost employee morale during this period) and do not expect any spike in attrition in the next few quarters," Infosys CEO SD Shibulal said after the firm announced its first quarter results last week.
Those on Wipro’s bench are using idle time to learn newer soft skills, plug into more management gyaan or learn new languages such as French and German, a company executive said. Anyone can apply for these courses under Wipro’s Open Enrolment programme.
TCS, which boasts of a utilisation rate of 82%, uses its bench to test prototypes of new technologies that have been developed internally besides getting them trained for upcoming projects.
Rather than relegate unbilled resources to a nondescript corner, iGate is getting them to work on pilots of key internal projects that can transform company strategy. With a utilisation rate of 77%, the California-based IT company-which employs over 10,000 in India-wants to use its bench strength to prevent layoffs. Those on the bench work on proof of concepts and internal automation tools. Managers are supposed to hold regular meetings and include all in project-specific meetings, reviews and other forms of communication. iGate also trains unbilled resources on a new solution called Integrated Technology and Operations ( iTOPS), which is expected to make them project-ready.
This is the second time the Indian IT industry is coping with declining utilisation rates; but it is perhaps the first time it has shown a razor sharp focus on making benched resources more productive and keeping them engaged. "Until a few years ago, companies would leave those on the bench alone," says P Thiruvengadam, senior director, Deloitte India. "But now they have become more organised and a lot of them are involved in preparing training modules, mock projects, learning about different projects, pre-sales activities, etc."
Learning from the past
The first time utilisation rates dipped was during the 2008 slowdown after Lehman’s collapse. Industry growth rates soon slipped to single digits, layoffs were not uncommon and morale was low. Many on the bench quit as the first opportunity came along.
But later, in 2010, when demand for IT rebounded, companies couldn’t replenish talent fast enough and cheap enough. The top tech firms were forced to go for lateral hiring, which sent their costs in a dizzy.
But now, having learnt the lesson from the last slowdown, IT firms are walking the extra mile to keep idle resources on the bench engaged and loyal. "Compared to 2008-09, things look much better this time," said Ankita Somani, IT analyst for Angel Broking.
This time around, companies are also taking extra care of campus hires. "First-timers need special attention; (older) employees without projects get involved in other things," said Parthasarathy NS, chief operating officer at MindTree. The company’s utilisation rate is around 69%, though the ideal range, according to its COO, should be 70-72%.
More such initiatives are being rolled out across the industry.
Consulting and IT services provider UST Global, for instance, has assigned top-level managers to set up one-on-one meetings with employees not working on any project. In the past one year, UST’s bench size has gone up from 6-7% to 10%.
The top brass has been told to keep communication flowing to those on the bench and to answer questions about the company, business environment, client requirements, etc.
UST, which employs close to 10,000 in India, also has an innovation lab called Apple Tree, where employees can conduct experiments and come up with scientific innovations. "People on the bench are asked to come to office everyday and be a part of this," says UST’s global HR head Niketh Sundar. "If they aren’t working on any projects and are not part of any training, we give them other duties". For instance, some have been pulled into UST Global foundation week celebrations.
But recruiters say such measures may be inadequate. Attrition is low only because there is no place to go, and once markets open up, these efforts may not keep them back. "If the skill sets learnt (by those on the bench) are niche, they aid the employee in climbing the hierarchy," said Sangeeta Lala, VP and co-founder of staffing firm TeamLease. "But it works only for the junior management and will not be sustainable if the bench grows."
"It can be a very frustrating phase, to be on the bench," said Rajesh S (name changed), an ex-employee of a large MNC IT services firm. He was on the bench since April. Rajesh attended knowledge-sharing workshops and in-depth discussions called ‘know your industry’. He sat through training programmes on people management once a week for two hours. Resource deployment managers would also get in touch with him frequently. But Rajesh still found it hard to stay benched. He quit this month.