Commuting to work can hardly be more arduous than on Mumbai local trains and anything that keeps people at home to do their jobs would be an ideal proposition? But, counter-intuitively, many office-goers, especially women, seem to be looking forward to going back to their workplaces when the lockdown ends.
While the novel Coronavirus has brought the world to its knees and the raging pandemic is making human society question some basics of work and industry, working from home has become the new normal and is being touted to be commonplace in the post-Corona world.
Obviously, employers are tempted to look at Work from Home (WFH) as a viable long-term option. Not just cutting down the expense of office space rentals, it also saves traveling time and allows a remote workforce to contribute. Companies like TCS, Google, and Facebook have already announced plans to allow people to WFH in the long term.
According to a gig economy company, Airtasker's 2019 survey 'working remotely might sound like a dream come true: It causes fewer distractions, removes the commute, and helps you save time and money'. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom had in 2015, published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics extolling the benefits of working from home. That research was based on a randomized control trial on 1,000 employees of Ctrip, a Chinese travel company. The experiment revealed that working from home during a nine-month period led to a 13 percent increase in performance plus a 50 percent drop in employee-quit rates.
Corona reality is different!
Prof Bloom has now changed his stance. He thinks that the global work-from-home movement intended to maintain output and efficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic could generate a worldwide productivity slump and threaten economic growth for many years.
"Everyone assumes I would be gushing over the global rollout of working from home," says Bloom, who is also the William D. Eberle Professor of Economics in the School of Humanities and Sciences. "Unfortunately not", he said in Stanford News recently. According to him the four challenging aspects of the current WFH movement are children, space, privacy, and choice. He says that In-person collaboration is necessary for creativity and innovation. His research has shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused.
WFH stressful for women
According to a recent survey by Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org conducted in April 2020, women are more likely than men to be experiencing symptoms of stress and burnout during the pandemic. It seems to be pushing women to their breaking point. A quarter of the women surveyed said they were experiencing severe anxiety with physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, while only 1 in 10 men reports those symptoms. 31% of women with full-time jobs and families say they have more to do than they can handle. The research indicates that women are disproportionately feeling overwhelmed.
The situation is not dissimilar in India where women are bearing far more load than they can bear. With the absence of household help, the chores around the house seem to elevate the stress levels. While other family members pitch in to help, the primary responsibility of cooking, cleaning, and care of children and the elderly, often falls on the women of the family.
Social in-equity and self-imposed pressure
Part of the problem is a malaise that affects the Indian patriarchal society where norms have historically exempted men from sharing the burden of running the household. Traditionally, women take care of most domestic chores. While many men have voluntarily tried to change this predisposition, there remains a huge inequality in the share of household labor in many families.
Those living in joint families are particularly having to live up to expectations such as cooking several meals a day, serving different members at different times, and cleaning up a heap of dishes after every meal. Several women, who are working full-time jobs, have husbands who, even if they want to, may not pitch-in because it's not a happy sight for the parents to see the son doing the 'mopping' around the house.
There is also a self-imposed pressure that women subject themselves to, expecting to perform all their roles to perfection. For instance, they join the bandwagon of making gourmet food or keep up the flow of photos on Instagram and family groups or maintain the house squeaky clean even in the absence of domestic staff. Many of them are unable to say no to all the extra calories, as a result gaining weight and ending up lowering their self-esteem. In short, women are exhausted by all these new demands but are still compelled to keep a smiling face in front of zoom camera at all times.
With the economy shrinking, and job markets crashing, many are trying extra hard to keep their jobs. Some organizations have already introduced salary cuts. In these uncertain times, the need to keep the job intact and employer happy is of paramount concern to all.
When the lockdown was introduced, many companies had no idea about its severity or length. As a result, many workers have not been equipped with the necessary technical support. Many middle-class Indian households do not have a personal computer, or may not have for all the members of the family who are working long hours on the machines. Plus the internet may not be high bandwidth. These are everyday frustrations and stress that many WFH professionals are suffering with. Studies suggest that due to lack of social company many are feeling isolated, lonely and depressed at home.
So, What is the antidote?
In this situation, it is paramount for employers to discover an antidote that addresses these challenges while allowing employees to leverage their full potential. The question is what should employers do in this COVID era? What should they focus on, given the complex web of factors affecting the world of work in the corona infected future?
The answer may lie in understanding the drivers of employee well-being.
At one level, organizational leaders should enable effective management of work and non-work demands that can have a significant effect on workers' performance. Companies can initiate some WFH specific practices such as flexible meeting times, allowing video-off presence during meetings, compressed workweeks, allowing work in shifts and/or rota system, providing necessary internet bandwidth and supporting infrastructure needs (hardware and software). These are just some aspects that can bring some of the satisfaction back to ever-stretching employees' workday from home.
Hedonic and Eudaimonic well-being
Attributes mentioned above which provide satisfaction and a sense of engagement in an employee's WFH efforts, researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, refer to them as the hedonic aspects of well-being. In layman's term, these are qualities that bring happiness resulting in a positive disposition in a person. It brings about a subjective state of pleasure that generates short-term positive emotions in the employee leading her to perform better.
At this point, employers may erroneously believe that they have successfully injected the antidote to cure the problems inflicted on society by the current reality. But, paradoxically, this notion is far from the truth. It is just one part of the puzzle.
A large component of well-being as researchers point out, but is hugely ignored, is the eudaimonic well-being. The Greek philosopher Aristotle termed it as that which cultivates personal strength, and what contributes to the greater good. While one set of contemporary researchers refer to it as acting in-sync with one's true nature and deeply held beliefs the others refer to it as realizing one's true potential while experiencing meaning and purpose in life.
Employers have to understand that these innate needs, rooted in human nature, should be addressed if they wish to make Work-From-Home effective. How some of these manifest, in an organization setting, are - Contributing to organizational goals through one's work, connecting with colleagues at a personal level, sharing stories of daily life, giving a voice and a form to their own self-identity in different settings and developing oneself socially, emotionally and professionally while being part of the larger organization. If some of these person-specific objective criteria are met while working from home, employees may feel that WFH is truly Work-Family-Heaven. Will employers be able to re-create this environment at home?
When employers are able to combine the hedonic and the eudaimonic aspects of well-being, they can develop a work culture that can optimize employee performance. The call to action, therefore, is to make informed decisions about the future of work keeping holistic employee well-being in mind.