Work from home (WFH) is the new mantra — partly because it is safe and convenient, the most important things right now; and partly because it could mean lower real estate costs for companies struggling to cope with what the pandemic and the lockdown have done to their business.
Not every job can be done from home, but even in jobs that can be, not everyone has the luxury of working from home.
WFH assumes that people have the connectivity they need to work from home; that their homes have quiet (or not-so-quiet) corners from where they can work; and that they do not mind work becoming all consuming.
Because it will.
Many people are under the misapprehension that working from home will improve their work-life balance. It may, but largely in jobs that involve either making or listening to presentations (oh yes, there are many such). In other jobs, particularly operational roles that involve getting one’s hands dirty (figuratively; coding is an example), the balance will tilt strongly towards work. The term always-on acquires a new meaning in the context of working from home. Sure, as pointed out by reams of literature produced over the past few decades on how to work from home, the not-so-secret secret is switching off — except that companies may not want that.
I’ve worked from home off and on over the past month, including one two-week period when I did not step out of home (not a quarantine; more a constraint necessitated by something else). I have the luxury of a study in a nice sunlit corner, good connectivity, a very quiet neighbourhood (April was mild, so I left the garden door open), and excellent company (as you can see from the photograph), but I hated it.
For starters, I missed my commute. I’m probably in a minority here; I can’t think of someone in Mumbai or Bengaluru saying this (my commute involves being driven through the most beautiful part of Delhi); but the commute in gives me an opportunity to process the information I’ve assimilated since morning, catch up with my e-mail, and plan the day ahead. At home, my commute involved entering the study.
I also missed my commute back. I usually leave office around 10pm, and spend the 20 minutes or so it takes to be driven back home catching up with news I might have missed in the course of the day. It’s the period of the day when the Page 1 team gets a barrage of messages from me, all links with the same question – “Do we have this?”
Not having an average departure time also meant that I didn’t know when to switch off. My work day, which would usually end around 10pm, with messages being exchanged till 11.00, sometimes 11.30, stretched on and on. But maybe this was just me.
I also missed the social interaction at the workplace — that accidental meeting and resulting conversation that results in a series; an all-hands bureau meeting; the Page 1 meeting at the hub table. Social media has trained us to build relationships with those we rarely encounter in the real world; better collaborative tools are enabling us work together without ever having to be in the same room (even country); but there is still something missing.
For decades now, companies have spent money and effort on having the right kind of offices. They believed (note the past tense) that these encouraged preferred work processes and interactions, and contributed to building an organisational culture. From Google to Godrej, Infosys to ITC, and Hindustan Unilever to HT Media, they invested in offices and campuses.
Now, health and economic reasons are making them swear by working from home. The question they will all have to answer is whether it is possible to build and maintain a culture minus the office.