Millennium Post

A desperate tussle

As COVID-19 necessitates 'work from home', the sustainability of such a scenario is being called into question amid pressures of always having to be at work

Let's talk COVID-19. More specifically, let's talk about what the deadly virus is doing to the average Indian, but not from the perspective of what is being played out today on the streets — in railway stations, at airports, inside office buildings, malls, restaurants and hospitals across India. Let's instead talk about what the unprecedented pandemic unleashed by this virus is doing to life inside India's households in today's changed times and in the minds of Indians.

As India unites in a now desperate struggle to keep the dreaded Coronavirus epidemic at bay and prevent an escalation of the virus to Stage III — when the disease spreads exponentially through community contact — some unparalleled and extraordinary measures are being taken by the Government, with a massive lock-down coming into effect.

Schools, malls, markets, financial establishments, nightclubs and pubs have all been shut down in this unparalleled show of restraint. The country itself is in lockdown mode, with flights being truncated or cancelled and visas being annulled for most foreign nationals. And over the last two weeks, offices cutting across industry sectors have increasingly been shut down till further notice and the work-from-home ethic has been introduced on a massive scale. Till recent times, this was followed only by some top MNC organisations but over the last fortnight, working from home has become commonplace throughout Corporate India, SMEs and even the smallest of establishments.

Other than the Government diktat to do so, the work-from-home concept has stemmed from three other bitter fronts. One, many sectors of Indian industry have seen demand crash to near-zero levels and there is no financial or logistical sense in keeping employees in offices when there are no clients to service — in hotels, cinema halls, airlines and shopping malls, and that's just to begin with. Two, employees have been increasingly fearful of being amongst a large number of people inside closed and cramped office premises. And three, the people that make the rules in these organisations, the HR teams, are themselves human too and want to restrict regular contact even with fellow colleagues at a time when social distancing is the new norm.

Take a look at what the HR head of a leading financial services firm has to say, "I have to admit that apart from business reasons, I was personally also very worried about spending 9-10 hours every day in a closed hall with over 200 people, all of whom travel to and from work and visit all kinds of other places. Any of them could already be infected. I spoke with the management, we calculated how much work could be conducted from home, the technology requirements, cost issues and benefits… We then introduced the work-from-home concept."

But apart from any analysis of work diversion, costs, technical aspects and so on, there are softer issues that come into play when an employee works from home. A leading clinical psychologist cites a complicated behavioural facet to working from home. "Every professional is also, and first, a human being. One has to be extremely disciplined to compartmentalise his time when working from home. Office hours have to now be office hours even when working from home. You may complete a given task or a conference call or a presentation. That done, you have to be motivated and dedicated enough to immediately move on to the next task. The temptation to take it easy for a while, watch some TV, or just relax for a while doing nothing will be very hard to resist."

He goes on to say that he sees three trends emerging among those who suddenly find themselves sitting at home for days on end while, technically, 'being at work'. "One, unfettered time and the lack of official monitoring, on top of the personal stress of the virus scare, will see many people consuming more alcohol through the day, even when they are technically 'at work'. Two, and mostly for the same reasons, smokers will tend to light up far more than they normally do during office hours. I also see a lot of new babies being conceived while we are sitting at home through this crisis."

The final lighter note aside, there is also a new peculiar conundrum for those who live alone, as in the case of a senior media professional. "Once I was confined to the house with 'work-from-home', I initially spent the sudden new spare time by catching up on my favourite content on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. That took care of the first few days but the satiation point was inevitably reached. I then started diverting my attention by doing spring-cleaning, putting away my winter clothes, getting out the summer ones — that took care of one day. The next day was spent cleaning out and re-arranging my bookshelves."

"But this seems to be a long haul. How much more, what more can I do to pass my new-found free time?"

Another said: "We all have a need to connect and have an inherent need for human company and contact. As I sit at home alone, my phone calls are getting longer. I don't want to end the call anymore. What will I do next? My other single friends are in the same boat — we are now adapting to becoming telephone buddies. It is not about how to spend time alone, it is about communicating, sharing, voicing our thoughts and fears, especially in these trying times."

There are other aspects to working from home — serious professional ones. Ravish Singh (name changed), Marketing Head of one of the 'Top 5' Indian software firms, reveals that even for an organisation his stature and size, the going is getting choppy and the outlook gloomy and unclear. "During a conference call last week with our offices in the US and Hong Kong, we asked for an additional allocation of $100,000 for a soft, Coronavirus-related marketing campaign. We were shot down in a heartbeat. The finance team is worried — most customer payments are behind schedule as client organisations worldwide are themselves in shutdown mode and employees are working from home. We are terribly worried as there are already murmurs of 'work-from-home' salary cuts of around 25 per cent. Eventually, if this continues for a few more weeks, we will be looking at job losses."

The above-stated organisation has revenues that reach over $14 billion annually. If this is the case here, what of smaller organisations? Worse still, what of individuals who do not have financial security? A prominent 5-star hotel near Lutyen's Delhi last week asked many of its low-level employees to submit their resignation; finances were stretched in the face of dwindling business and there was no respite in sight. Many others were asked to work from home. Deepak Singh (name changed) is one of them. He explains how he and others sharing his fate are now totally depressed and scared. "We have a constant fear gnawing away at our insides — how will our families survive without an income, especially with Coronavirus refusing to show signs of abating? I am sitting at home and have to put on a brave face in front of my family for 24 hours day, while inside, I am petrified."

Clearly, life at home is not the same anymore. Whether it is a forced work-from-home situation, self-isolation or self-quarantine, Indians are in for a rough professional ride. For this is a virus that is not only killing physically, it is also maiming mentally. It is also silently killing on a large scale financially.

In these tough times, some softer hues. Social media is rife with what Delhi's successful couples are saying to lighten the mood. "We used to crave for personal time together. Our jobs kept us apart for days or just gave us an hour or two each evening. Now we are spending 24 hours together each day. This better end soon, or one of us will kill the other before anyone else gets close."

Views expressed are strictly personal

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