British India saw a massive shift in its work culture back in the 18th and 19th century, when workers were forced to leave the comforts of their homes and work in factories. Give or take a few years, and one can observe a reversal taking place where the workforce is shifting back home some three centuries later, and like the last time, the impetuous change has not been sitting well with the masses, engendering miscellaneous troubles.
Over the past few months, the world health has taken a dip due to the novel coronavirus, and governments are facing a dearth of coping options, being forced towards massive scale lockdowns. Barring the cardinal sector employees i.e. the healthcare and policing staff, and key government workers who have kept the country up and running, the government restricted all others within the safety of their homes. When the majority of workers suddenly found themselves idle due to a mass suspension of business activities, others struggled to implement the sudden work-from-home culture without proper technology or training.
Indian businesses at large have not been enthusiastic about the virtual way of working, and favour sealing deals in ink and pen. This practice is shouldered on many reasons ranging from widespread digital illiteracy, bias towards face-to-face operations, lack of reliable IT infrastructure, various misconceptions towards technology usage in work culture, etc.
From an Indian employer’s perspective, work-from-home is essentially considered an excuse leveraged by an employee to run errands at home while being available via ‘email’, whereas staring at a laptop or mobile screen while at home is considered a sign of indolence or delinquency by the family. These negative perceptions against work-from-home makes it difficult for a person to work with concentration and be productive at home, or get respect and enumeration for such work at the workplace.
The biggest thumbs up for the work-from-home culture springs from the time saved on sluggish hours of commute and brutal morning dress-ups, but it isn’t as rosy as one would picture. Indian homes are simply not designed or habitual for work-from-home employees, therefore every time an extended family member, a child, neighbors, delivery person, milkman, house-help, etc decide to show up, or there is a pending home chore (more so for female employees), work ends up being delayed. Moreover, commotion and interference are inescapable since the concept of a separate study is not yet common in middle-income homes.
Unfamiliar with the work-from-home culture, most employers are also finding it tough to strike an optimum balance, and are either overworking or underworking their employees. At times, employers forget to keep work communication limited to office hours and end up hampering an employee’s personal life, which might lead to employee burnout down the line. There is a lack of measuring units for remote work in most job profiles, which makes it difficult to separate the non-productive employees from the lot, in the absence of real oversight. Another big problem is disengagement an employee faces from the vision and strategy of their company, as they are disconnected from their usual work culture like sneaky water cooler moments, office gossip over tea and lunch breaks, etc., all this while working in unfamiliar hours from their usual 9-to-5.
COVID-19 has pushed the Indian society into an accelerated adoption of the digital way of life. The new normal of cooking, dressing, talking, and even exercising using/via online content has been welcomed by many Indian homes, irrespective of income and cultural backgrounds. It would be impractical to discuss work-from-home without acknowledging the role and importance of digital technology as a key enabler. But this very aspect has become a nightmare for anyone above 40 years of age or sluggish in adapting to the digital landscape.
Purchasing of laptops and tablets, installation of wifi, etc. saw a surge during the countrywide lockdown owing to high demand from workers, school children and teachers alike. Most lower and middle-income homes have come under undue pressure of bearing this unplanned expenditure, creating an entire chunk of the Indian population vulnerable to cyber crimes as well. On top of that, an unreliable Internet connection, frequent computer breakdowns and treacherous video conferencing apps are major work inhibitors and don’t inspire confidence in society, whose workforce is taking baby steps in virtual ways of doing business.
Learning how to micro-manage and instruct a team via emails or business management softwares without proper training and experience is making a manager, owner or principal more focused on technological glitches rather than the actual work. This becomes a critical issue when you intersect it with age-learning difficulties, eyesight issues, language barriers and so on.
The countrywide lockdown has forced industries into a hasty and patchy adoption of some version of work-from-home. Due to sudden shift in work practices, absence of well-thought remote working policy, and a lack of employee skills related to virtual work management (technical, psychological, etc.), work-from-home is haunting a worker’s mind. But, in these uncertain times when businesses in the country are laying off employees or shutting down completely, dealing with work-from-home issues will not make it to their list of priorities.
Certain factions of the IT sector, startups, content creators, etc. are some of the sectors which have been implementing work-from-home even before the pandemic struck, given their early embracing of digital working frameworks. Other businesses can look up to them to make themselves familiar with the intricacies and toil that goes into working from home before they can give precedence to proper policymaking.
Every aspect of our life has transcended into new realms of uncertainty, and we have stepped into a new and forced reality, but a reality nevertheless. We need to make our society comfortable with the new normal, and moving ahead, we need to plan our lives and work accordingly.