Working From Home or Living at Work?

It has been over three months since the lockdown was announced and we are still adjusting to this altered version of our pandemic-influenced lives. While working from home (WFH) was a common practice in some industries, there are many among us who are in professions that demand a physical presence and do not entirely function digitally.

I deal with students and believe the traditional brick and mortar system of education is a necessity because in the education sector, a teacher-student interaction in person is imperative for cognitive understanding that goes beyond the curriculum. The campus, classrooms, canteens, recreation grounds are all major contributors in shaping and building young minds and a digital delivery of education can at best be a supplement and not a substitute of the traditional structure.

However, in the present situation, it seems like working from home, as a practice, is likely to stay for a while.

This comes with its own pros and cons. The pros include being able to save time and money – that otherwise went in commuting daily to office – a healthier diet and theoretically more quality time with family. But these can vary from person and person.

Also read: ‘Work From Home’ Is About Culture, Not Economics

Before going to that, let us look at the feasibility of WFH and its sustainable implementation. According to Deval Shah, managing director (India), Danske IT, a litmus test is to track how smoothly and quickly companies adapt to this changed working style and productivity, he said. For some, work-life balance has improved since most work can be discussed, collaborated and delivered digitally – which in fact saves the company “traffic congestion”.

While work from home has allowed companies to temporarily save their regular operational costs, the reality of digital India needs to be taken with a slight pinch of salt. According to 2017-2018 data released by the National Sample Survey Organization, only 42% of urban household have internet access – which makes it less conducive for companies dealing with critical data or clients. Further, data privacy and leakages are issues in digital solutions for the employer, employee, and the client.

Moreover, it is somehow assumed that employees working from home will need higher monitoring as there is a possibility of free riding and job shirking – which leads to stringent WFH conditions in most Indian companies. Hence, WFH is not something everyone finds desirable or can do in the first place.

The reasons include a lack of infrastructure, family structures, social and cultural norms among others. According to census 2011 data, 71% of households in India with three or more members have homes with two or less rooms. This comprises 64% in urban areas. As per National Family Health Survey-4 data, a good 39% of urban households have non-nuclear family structure with mean household size at 4.3 and only 20.4% of urban households possessing internet connection.

Also read: We Need to Talk About ‘Work From Home’

These statistics show that the success of WFH depends not just on the ability and proactiveness of workers, but on various other factors that makes working from home a daunting task for many. Indian households, even with a nuclear structure, involve at least one parent in a majority of cases, along with a married couple and a kid. The workers, therefore, need to take care of frequent demands or requests from other household members, look after their kids (if any), manage household chores and so on and so forth.

This in turn creates a role-blurring effect where the distinction between office work and household work tends to overlap, which often creates a work-life conflict for many instead of a work-life balance. A lot of working professionals have now started cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children simultaneously rather than sequentially with their professional work.

To top it, given Indian work culture, stay at home has induced more demanding work participation, incessant digital meetings and messed up work schedules. It is not difficult to imagine how WFH must be a herculean task for those living in non-nuclear families.

The hard-won workplace rights – such as nine working hours, facilities like maternity leave, etc – tend to be lost as WFH is yet to come under the purview of institutional legal framework.

Finally, it is important to recognise the mental health aspect of this new working style. The routine office trips also included hanging out with colleagues, intermittent tea breaks and simply getting some air and sun. All these are necessary elements for mental health, which gets compromised through prolonged home confinement.

I do not think we are going to go back to the traditional style of working any time soon. Since that is the case, there is definitely a need to set up a work framework that aims at a better balance between our work and personal life.

One can think of perhaps a 50-50 WFH-office attendance or an official clockwise retire time even in work from structure to give due credence to challenges faced by professionals and minimising this existing work-life conflict.

What lies ahead is uncertain and unknown, but we can always speak for, advocate and strive towards a healthier personal and professional life to ensure that “work from home” does not become “living at work”.

Panchali Banerjee is an assistant professor of economics at Adamas University, Kolkata. 

Featured image credit: Natalia Lopes/Unsplash