“Kaske joota, kaske belt … kandhon pe zimmedari, haath mein file, mann mein dum, meelon meel chalenge hum …” (Wearing shoes and a tight belt … with responsibility on shoulders, with a file in hand and a courageous heart, we will walk miles and miles … the song continues) – was how one’s work life looked like in the pre-COVID era. The imagery produced through these lyrics remain relevant in the post-COVID world, except the song now stops at these four lines because you have reached your workstation – the table beside your bed.
The world of work, with all its stresses and gossips, shifted to homes as lockdowns began to be imposed in several countries with the outbreak of COVID-19, in early 2020. A year which has often been declared “cancelled” in our daily conversations, 2020 has come to be defined as a form of “disruption,” “an imbalance,” as well as a “pause.” It is you and your socio-economic standing that decides your position on this ideological spectrum. However, one aspect of our lives that cannot be concretely placed within this spectrum, and moves across it based on its fluctuations, remains ‘the professional.’ One’s economic, political and social behaviours surrounding the professions they were involved in came to be impacted due to such a drastic shift. Restrictions on travel and social contact became sole reasons that hindered work from an office desk and forced professionals to stay indoors and work-from-home.
The purpose of office spaces in the corporate world is social. Remote work has had a significant impact on workplace culture, besides dealing with the spread of the virus. “People find meaning in their daily rituals of getting ready to leave home, commuting, grabbing their cup of coffee, and filling their water bottle before sitting at their desk,” claims Thomas, a partner with the Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network. This process of meaning-making has transformed while working from home in a way that people find it convenient to attend office from their beds, without deliberate focus on these necessary rituals. A separate corner for the employee to organize official meetings and conferences is reserved within the four walls of one’s house, often attended to in half-worn attire and a too-close-to-be-combed hair. The collaborative nature of tech-tools promoting remote work-culture has replaced the in-office coffee-machine gossips and hiccups. With dogs or family members walking in the background, remote work-culture on one hand offers relaxed workplace standards and is being lauded to have added “humanity to us.” On the other hand, a series of boxes and closets earlier criticised by an eminent American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, for preventing democracy and freedom, seems to have returned, though in an avatar enclosed within the four sides of our laptop screens.
This dependency on online mode of work highlights the discrimination that has operated through socio-economic hierarchies, with factors such as class, caste, gender impacting one’s access to certain privileges – be it technological or social. Access to stable internet connection? – a plethora of opportunities waiting for you out there; while a family engaging in unhealthy arguments all the time? – a full stop to important participation on the workscreen. This scenario threatens workplace democracy and freedom by considering one’s ability either to sail or fail – advocating for means that only benefit a specific population of employees.
Moreover, the boundaries between two spheres crucial to the life of an employee – work and home, got blurred with time. While multiple online sources guide one to a productive and healthy work-life balance during the lockdown, a year into it, conversations are shifting to that of an eager return to the workplace. Opinions on the way “this is the end of the office as we know it” along with changes that could be observed in a post-pandemic world of work have been put forward by many organizations. Emphasis on the need for technological tools such as access to video-conferencing softwares, skills to operate new-age computer programs, a stable internet connectivity etc. to facilitate online work, have increased with time. However seamless and productivity-efficient it may sound, it has pushed employees into the never-ending loop of being “online,” resulting in time confetti. Time confetti, a term coined by Brigid Schulte, “amounts to little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking.” A constant influx of work-related notifications, messages, emails, etc. from a co-employee or your boss has the possibility of disrupting one’s leisure time and preventing the user from engaging in physical face-to-face interactions even while at home.
Although online communication between the employee and the employer provides flexibility and a certain degree of control over those interactions, it is often known to result in an autonomy paradox. A work-efficient mobile device is essential for one to ‘connect’ to the office. The term ‘work-efficient’ here would mean being accessible anytime and anywhere, adding to one’s personal autonomy. However, professionals seem to have channelised its usage to working “everywhere/all the time, thus diminishing their autonomy in practice.” An example of this dilemma would be – “if we are trying to be a committed parent while our work email goes off, we can’t help thinking we should be working on our next deadline. This conflict makes us feel like a bad parent and a bad employee.” During the pandemic-enforced remote work-culture, one could find similar scenarios evident of the work-home imbalance, promoting toxic-tasking more than ever. The guilt associated with not working from home and ‘wasting’ time on other unproductive and non-economic ventures, even for a second, overpowers our ability to arise out of this imbalance.
Moreover, our means of leisure have shifted online – with free webinars, birthdays, weddings, get-togethers, graduations, funerals, all happening over our laptop screens. While some are looking for measures to avoid Zoom fatigue online, the talk about returning to the workplace is on the rise with recent unlocks being witnessed in different parts of the world. Several assumptions about how the workplace would look like in a post-pandemic world are being made – with ideas about AI-operated lifts and doors, segregated desks, increased use of dividers, floor signs, lesser number of employees working from office, assuring employees of their safety in the physical workplace. The world, now understanding the meaning of the phrase, “six-feet-away,” appears to be set to enter the physical workplace. Crucial safety measures being implemented in such spaces involve less coworking spaces, more private and personal spaces, regular sanitization of desks, chairs, common areas, and documentation to provide employees with the necessary information to protect themselves from associated risks.
However, considering the merits associated with work-from-home narrative, there exists a decent push to create a balance that would allow willing employees to work from home and others from the office. As Rashmi Dhawani, Founder of the Art X Company puts it, these merits revolve around increase in trust and accountability between employees and the employers, fluid leadership possibilities due to new technologies being easily adapted by younger professionals as compared to experienced bosses, in addition to success in what companies were hesitant about earlier, that is, enhancing employee-productivity while at work from their homes. People have also cherished their ability to work in different environments and adapt new skills beneficial for their work. But, with employees connected through their mobile devices to the office while walking their dog in the park, the question, ‘what’s in your pocket – your office or your sanitizer?’ becomes necessary.
Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
Picture Credits: BBC WORKLIFE
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