Work and Work Spaces After Covid
‘Honestly, at this point, I am just glad to be still working’
This transition is big and considerably more sudden than an industrial revolution. For some it has been no less than a work-from-home revolution. To understand people’s evolving perspectives on wage-work from home, I spoke to employees in the IT industries, teachers, content creators, representing sections of society such as working mothers and middle-aged people, who are mere employees, and also to company managers.
Most people said there had been a significant increase in their working hours, albeit with the total workload unchanged. Only a few received any monetary help from their employers to arrange the resources needed to work from home. Working from home has decreased their productivity, they take longer to complete the same task. Their working hours are no longer well defined, and the boundaries between work and personal life seem to be diminishing.
Despite all this, as time passes and people adjust better to the new circumstances, they are appraising the benefits of the new situation…
Varsha Agrawal is a teacher for primary and middle school children. Such is the nature of her labour that working from home would seem out of the question, yet the pandemic has forced her into this situation. As she struggles to devise new ways to communicate with her students, she worries about how little learning is taking place: “It’s much more difficult this way. It’s very difficult to form a connect without face to face interaction.”
A number of her students have visual impairments. “Though even in the regular classes they only relied on listening, at least they had access to their Braille textbooks and we could regularly keep up with their progress by evaluating the written work they submitted.” Without actual classes this is no longer possible.
Her salary has been reduced by 25% but she does not mind the extra workload of creating e-learning content along with her regular online classes. “Honestly, at this point, I am just glad to be still working,” says Agrawal.
After hectic initial weeks her work hours have now reduced, with only a few classes to take each day, and not having to be present in school throughout. Would she want to continue working from home in future? – “Never. This job is not about just the money it pays me or the number of work hours it requires me to put in. I enjoy the work I do with these children and it brings me a sense of fulfilment which can never be achieved from interaction through a screen.”
Akansha Rai, an IT professional who works for a reputed company in Pune, say she has been finding it hard to work from home. “I just can’t seem to get any work done!” She attributes this to her inability to fully concentrate on an office task in the absence of “an office-like environment. It’s also a lot more difficult because if you get stuck at some point, it takes much longer to solve the issue as you can’t pop your head into the next cubicle asking for help.”
“Office was not just a place where I went to work, it was a place to interact with people, make friends,” Rai explains. “Unofficial interactions have reduced to an almost zero in this scenario and I for one find it very disheartening.”
The experiences of Akshay, also an IT professional, are in stark contrast. “I had already been working from home for two days a week, so the transition hasn’t been all that difficult for me. Yes, it does take a little longer to the usual work as problem-solving is more time-taking now, but I find the flexibility concerning the work hours very convenient… Also, of course, add to this the fact that now I can have warm home-cooked meals at all times,” he adds with a smile.
Madhavi, who works as a software developer for a tech giant in Gurugram, and is also mom to a 5-year-old girl, finds the work from home situation pretty amusing.
“Everyone appears to have suddenly grown very understanding! Earlier, when on occasions I couldn’t find anyone to stay with my daughter and had to request my manager to allow me to work from home for the day, everyone pretty much assumed I’d be spending the day doing household chores. In such situations I usually ended up doing more work than I would in the office, just to prove the fact that I was working.
“Now, when everyone has been put in my shoes, they understand that working from home in no way involves doing lesser work. I hope in future they will be more accepting of me working from home.”
Shraddha, a creative content developer for a multinational tells me of the challenges she has been facing. “Our work usually involves a lot of collaboration. We could never have imagined working in this manner, but we have been catching up fast.” But there have been quite a few upsides as well. “I am saving a lot as I no longer have to spend on transport. I was also able to travel back to my home town, and after a very long time am spending time with my family. This long stretch of work from home has opened up a lot of possibilities for me. The nature of my work required me to report to the office every day so I could collaborate with my team, but now when we have embraced work from home as a plausible option, I can probably stay in my hometown with family for long stretches without compromising on my career.”
Anita Singh, associate professor at a degree college affiliated to a state university in Uttar Pradesh, has only a few years of service left. She tells me of her woes grappling with technology at her age. “I feel jealous of my colleagues who retired before this pandemic happened,” she says with an embarrassed smile. As she struggles to continue her work away from her familiar classroom, I sense the pride in her voice as she talks in detail about PowerPoint. “I would have never learned all of this, had I not been compelled in this manner. It was difficult at first but I find myself growing confident by the day,” says Singh.
Some management workers shared their perspectives about their subordinates’ performance while working from home.
According to Jayendra Singh, manager at an industrial corporation, “Surprisingly for the top bosses, the employees’ performances have not shown any dips in this period. People instead seem highly eager to prove that they are working as efficiently as ever. They are not even shying away from putting in extra hours of work.”
After a little thought, he adds, “Remote working in this manner though, without any change of scene, can take a toll on the mental health of people which will be bad not just for them but also for the company. Even then, I do believe that in the future companies will become a lot more flexible, and those who wish to continue working from home, completely or partially, would find their employers becoming highly accommodative.”
Vinay Sharma, who works as a manager for a multinational dealing in processed food, makes a very interesting point. “Look at this from the company’s point of view. Their costs have been cut immensely. They no longer have to pay for electricity, the internet, and other facilities like the canteen. As they see their employees putting in as much if not more work as they used to put in earlier, they have no reason to shift back to people working full time in offices.”
“Mark my words,” says Sharma, “even if we can go back to a world with no social distancing, companies are going to encourage work from home and will ask their employees to come to the office in shifts, a few days a week, if at all. This way they will also save a lot on rent as the same office space can be used by more people.” His words are corroborated by news of IBM reducing its office space in Bengaluru by 50%.
The pandemic and its management have created further space for the institutional exploitation of workers. The eight-hour work day has been rendered meaningless. Business owners have passed on a sense of obligation to their employees for having retained their jobs. This seems highly misplaced, as they have also passed on expenses like internet connectivity, electricity, equipment to employees, while avoiding costs on rent and other services like canteens. Many have even resorted to salary cuts for their employees, while protecting their profits.
Avenues have opened up meanwhile to make jobs a lot more inclusive, bringing opportunities for wage-work to a lot of people who earlier did not find it possible due to the constraint of having to be physically present in the workplace.
It becomes increasingly clear that it will be difficult to go back to previous ways of working even if disease distancing norms are relaxed. The pandemic-led human tragedy bestows on us the chance to reconstruct work and workspaces. We may never look at them the same way again.
Aishwarya Prakash is an MPhil scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala