A cousin and her husband live in Bangalore. They are both young, intelligent people and work for the IT sector. My cousin specialises in machine learning and artificial intelligence. For years I understood very little of their life, including the fact that both of them work from home. I reckon, their work requires very little human interaction or the necessity to operate within strict work timings.
The last five weeks of practicing work from home (WFH) has taught me a lot. I have a slightly better understanding of this phenomena, a better appreciation of things that we take for granted and also about human nature.
WFH, as I comprehend and appreciate, is neither a new phenomenon not is it rare. For centuries this has been the way of work for millions across the world. I realise that a majority of our small businesses in India were run from home. Think of Kirana stores, bakeries, barbers, halwais, cloth merchants, hakeems, etc. that dot the chowks, peths and bazaars across the country. A majority of them operated out of homes of the owners. It offered them immense flexibility with time, abundant manpower in the form of families and also hot meals, for which you just had to get off the till and walk up a floor. It worked pretty well for them as life was built around it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the GP your parents took you to in your childhood operated out of her home clinic and the lawyer your father engaged for the property dispute with your uncles had a kutchery in his ancestral bungalow, from where he made his money, and stepped out only to attend the courts on the days he managed to fix a hearing for your case. I suspect this is still true in most parts of India.
Many people like me, who are part of the modern workforce, are a children of the Industrial Revolution, which begat centralised workplaces, regulated work-hours and institutionalised discipline, which is also seen by many as modern slavery. We are the ones who find WFH an alien phenomena and we are also the ones who are struggling the most to come to terms with it. For many of us, who claim to be people-centric, it is the joy, energy and camaraderie that is missing.
For some salarymen, it is the missing sense of purpose that attending an office every day brings. For many living in cramped quarters in big cities, it the sheer physical challenge of operating out of small homes that is putting them off.
On the other hand there are a lot of people who seem to be enjoying working from home. It affords them more time with the family, an opportunity to pursue hobbies and interests that were ignored or just the freedom of wearing fewer items of clothing. Some people have actually figured out that their productivity has increased. This could also be a reflection on the number and duration of coffee breaks they take at office or the time that is spent in idle gossip. Of course, there are claimed benefits of WFH, though I personally would not endorse any.
In the academic pursuit of understanding this phenomena a little better, I have also tried to study human behaviour. There are certain distinct behavioural groups that have emerged. After a few weeks of study, I notice these prominent types (though I must confess, these are early findings).
Slave Drivers: Team-leaders, bosses and departmental heads that are driven by a higher purpose, like the Romans were a couple of Millennia ago. They believe that work makes you happy; and back-breaking, invented and fruitless work makes you happier. They are creating fictitious projects to keep your gainfully employed.
Vaanar Sena: These are reportees of the mythological engineers Nal and Neel. They built the bridge across the sea to Lanka, which lead to the great victory of good over evil. They are devoted, unquestionably conscientious, deliver the results and will be forgotten once the campaign is over.
Card punchers: The followers of the ‘two punch – one lunch’ school of thought. Will send emails dutifully at 9 in the morning and 6 in the evening to the boss and teams to register their presence. Their contribution is questionable, both in office and during WFH.
Hobbyists: Making the most of this extended holiday by uploading pictures of what they cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner, playing musical instruments in the afternoon and making funny videos of their pets and kids. All this is being done in office time, while the company is paying them to work from home. They haven’t realised that these derelictions are being noted by bosses and HR. Shooting videos is fine as long as you don’t shoot yourselves in the foot.
Stoics: These are true soldiers and can take anything as it comes. Nothing fazes them and they have best adapted to the new changes. They deliver the goods, do not complain, are not having any extra fun and I suspect their output may have gone up since there are fewer distractions around.
Work from home suits certain industries and businesses and may have its benefits in terms of flexibility, lower rentals, higher outputs, etc. These are jobs that may not require much of human interface. But, mine does. My team and I work with numerous agencies, researchers, technologists, accountants, engineers, dealerships, etc. and we interact with a hundred people face to face, on a daily basis.
WFH was never meant for people like us, until it was forced upon us by circumstances. We have managed to survive it quite admirably but it is abundantly clear that it is not for everyone. Most certainly, it is not for me.
(The author is head of marketing, Skoda Auto India. Views expressed are purely personal and do not reflect the views of the organisation I work for. I express gratitude to my daughters, who have permitted me the use of their desks for my WFH stint.)