Working From Home in India
The revolution has started. The long awaited change is upon us. No office is ever going to be the same again as the employees, long oppressed under the yoke of having to wear pants and going to office, march into the glorious future of sitting in their beds with their laptops and asking their friends, children and significant others to keep it down.
But no matter how much fun we make of it, the world has definitely shifted. Large companies like Twitter have announced permanent WFH for employees who want it. There are already predictions of suburban price boom in real estate as employees start moving out of overpriced and overcrowded cities in US. Back home, it is not only the startups but even companies like TCS that are looking to have a large chunk of their workforce
working from home even when situation returns to normal.
Amidst all this, there is little discussion on the implications of WFH in context of India. How will different kind of employees affected by this? Is is such a universally good things for everyone as it is being touted as? Here are some points to ponder about.
Where is home?
Every year, a large population of recent graduates land up in major IT centers like Bangalore, Noida, Gurugram, and Pune to start their careers. As the companies switch to wfh, would they require the employees to be present in the same city? Or would they allow them to work from their native places? What would it mean for the economy of these cities if a certain percentage of population earning from companies located there were to never come to the city, not pay taxes and not contribute to the local economy?
Who wants to stay at home?
Unlike US where moving out of SF allows people to live in these nice pretty places with beaches and wilderness and running tracks and nature walks, in India, most tier 2, tier 3 and smaller cities are no paradise waiting to be explored. With few exceptions, they are with poorer infrastructure and worse living conditions then a bigger city. Yes, Bangalore has a crumbling infra with huge traffic jams but do you know about the power cuts and 4G coverage in smaller cities? Without these and other basic facilities in place, working from home cities will remain challenging.
Power & Bandwidth
Hell, even within cities, electricity is erratic during summer and monsoon. Office spaces are equipped with large power backups to protect against such disruptions. India runs on patched up infra and now a lot more places will need to be patched! (This reminds me of going to Begusarai, a town in Bihar, for the first time. Because of the frequent power cuts, there had emerged a parallel generator based distribution system, complete with poles and wiring, that provided power to households for running a fan, few lights etc) Bandwidth availability has increased significantly but a large number of people rely on mobile broadband. With frequent video calls and multiple people working from same premise, a huge upgrade will be needed there as well.
Beds As Workspaces
Let's consider the availability of proper working space in homes. My estimate is that only a small number of junior employees are likely to have proper working spaces in home. You can see a lot of people in Zoom calls working on their beds, working on low tables, working with their laptops on their laps. While this may work for shorter duration, it is a recipe for disaster in longer term and will lead to problems like neck and back pain.
The common thread through all this is that office spaces come with certain infrastructure. Working from Home would mean that the same infra is made available to employees at their homes. It is not a matter of simple asking someone to stop coming to office.
Not Everyone Has a Quite Space at Home
But even if we assume that someone has access to a well equipped workspace in home, there are other considerations. People come from all kinds of social situations and families. Already I can hear children crying or excessive traffic noise in the background of many calls from customer support and seller support. Offices provide a clear break from the situation at home - you get to office, you leave things at home behind you. You have a chance to focus and concentrate. No doubt, for many, their homes may be a better place to work but for many, they are not. I mean, on one hand, we are arguing about open plan offices and how they affect productivity and on the other hand, no one is batting an eyelid about situating people in possibly even more chaotic workspaces!
There is a gender angle here as well. I believe that in India, and may be elsewhere as well, WFH is going to be a step back for married women. The burden of care work (kids, elderly) is going to creep onto their plates. When you step out of the house and go to work, you are no longer present and that provides a clear break. The office time is respected. There is a larger acceptance of sharing of responsibilities. But when someone is home, that clear boundary is breached and they will have to negotiate it all over again. It is easy for a woman's career to take a lower priority then the man. And let's not forget the ugly reality of domestic violence and unsafe spaces. Specially in the current stressful time. Coronavirus may trap women in the ‘safe haven’ of the home.
Self-Motivation is Great But Have You Tried Going to The Office?
And lastly, the self-righteous quotes and tweets making rounds that declare that making people work from office is akin to not trusting them and that if you don't trust your employees to be working on their own, then you have bigger problems etc etc.
It is not that I do not trust my employees. It is that I understand human nature and the effect of external circumstances. We make jokes about falling into Wikipedia rabbit holes, we discuss about constant distractions from our phone, we write articles about 5 ways to keep on track when working from home, but any employer suggesting that coming to office may be a good idea is not worth working for?
I am one of those easily distracted people. I've always been - from before any of the social media existed. But I am also respectful and conscious of my environment. When in office sitting with my colleagues, I am not going to pickup my mobile and scroll through Twitter for couple of hours or watch Netflix for half an hour. At home, it takes a lot of will power on my part not to do that. Didn't people say that the best way to develop a habit is to place yourself in a situation that make the desired action the default? That is how I see the office environment. There are certain things that you don't do in an office and that is that. No more struggling with yourself.
Yes, I know. We should focus on the outcomes and not the effort & time. I am not advocating video recording people and using sensors to monitor them. I am pointing out that different environments affect our behavior and what we consider ok. Moving to a newer environment with less boundaries and rules, is going to demand more from us in some aspects, not less.
I love not having to commute to my office. It is merely 4 KM away but it would sometimes take me 35-40 minutes to get there and I would be full of road-rage by the end of it. I have colleagues who are not spending 3 hours commuting every day. And that is great. But they are also struggling to balance the demands of household on their time against their work. They are sitting in strange postures on their beds and tables of wrong heights. They are already struggling with the worsening electricity situation in Bangalore. Some of them are not able to come on video call when others in the house also need to be on a call.
And worse of all, we are not finding time and place for some lighthearted chitchat, gossip and banter. The video calls feel far too formal and planned. As Satya Nadella warned yesterday: an all-remote setup would be "replacing one dogma with another dogma"
So let's do what has to be done. But let's go into it with out eyes open. And let's try and make decisions that take into account the diversity of our workforce. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences from remote working over last two months. Drop a comment or find me on Twitter @abhaga.
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash