Rethinking work from home in India: A socio-cultural take
With COVID-19 bringing a sizeable portion of the world under partial or complete lockdown, work from home (WFH) has emerged as a hot topic of discussion. #WFH is a visible hashtag on social media these days. But WFH is not a new concept. WFH has been the way of work for me. I have spent almost three-quarters in the last two decades working from home. With advances in technology, organizations have been exploring WFH, especially around the future of work, Employee Engagement, and Diversity & Inclusion. In many companies, flexible work and WFH were becoming part of policy discussions. But what has changed today in light of COVID19?
Well, for one, the framing of WFH. In the past, WFH was framed primarily as a choice, incentive, or convenience for target groups. Today, under COVID-19 and beyond, WFH is being explored as a more sustainable option. If designed well, WFH has many benefits, including protecting health, economy, and the environment. But in designing WFH, ramping up the infrastructure for virtual work like tools for digital collaboration, data security and connectivity are only a part of this design. Influencing the attitude and behavior of people towards WFH plays a much more significant role.
Experts on habit change claim that doing something repeatedly over sometime helps develop new habits. For example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator on the way up can take a few weeks of reminders, pain, and determination. But after doing it diligently for a few weeks, taking stairs can start becoming a habit. People today are adapting to WFH, voluntarily or due to mandatory restrictions, irrespective of their past opinion about it. People are practicing WFH, social distancing, frequent sanitizing, and wearing masks. In fact, in the foreseeable future, the mask may become a mandatory accessory just like mobile phones (that, of course, worries me about the future of lipstick as a product!). Organizations will hope these habits are for good, but they can’t rely only on that. There is a need for policies and practices around WFH that can help employees adapt to it in the immediate, middle, and long term.
In WFH, two institutions get impacted the most. These are home and workplace. Beyond infrastructure-related issues like lack of dedicated workspace, patchy Wifi or printer not working, there are more profound social and cultural factors that need consideration. An understanding of the effect of these factors on home and workplace can help in designing better solutions. Let us look into a few of these factors:
WFH – What happens at home?
Home routines get affected as work routines take precedence. Familiar routines and schedules at home get superimposed by work schedules. Then, no talking, no walking around, no noisy fans, no opening curtains, and many more such invisible signs come up all over the house. Family members have to navigate these hidden minefields as others go through their virtual meetings, presentations, or online classes. With people working across multiple time-zones, these restrictions often run through the day. Households with kids and elderly parents have to go through a higher degree of adaptation in such cases.
For kids, having a parent at home but not having access to the parent, can be confusing. Demand on the professional’s time goes up. He/she needs to cater to family’s (children, spouse or parents) revised expectation of quality and quantity time.
In WFH, the separation between work and family gets compromised. Without this separation, the pressures of work can spill into family and vice versa. On a lighter note, although we tend to complain about traffic and long commute between home and work, sometimes this time can be useful. It can act as a buffer to absorb the pressures with time to reflect & recover. Aside, India being a culture where face-saving is important, WFH with its minimal separation between work and home, can create uncomfortable situations.
There is increased pressure on relationships. For couples, used to dividing their time at home and work, will now be spending almost the entire day with each other. That can create additional stress and emotional demands in the relationship.
For women professionals, in particular, WFH can complicate the balance between personal and professional life. Globally, women take on the majority of care and home responsibilities. They spend a considerable amount of time on this unpaid work. In patriarchal cultures like India, this divide is, even more, marked given gender-based hierarchies. Allocation of responsibilities is often not fair and can have an impact on health (physical & mental) as well as work output.
WFH – What happens at work?
For many households, mainly traditional patriarchal households, ‘going to work’ has been like a Blackbox (i.e. what happens there stays there). There are many routines, rituals & attention for the professional (more so, the MAN), before and after return from work.
Physical symbols like wearing the badge, getting ready for work, a car coming for pick up are essential links to their identity. In India, there is a large population of young people from middle/lower-middle-class backgrounds, who work as contract employees through third-party vendors. They may not be on-roll of these big companies, but the workplace is a window to their professional identity. For some, wearing the badge or working in fancy office buildings are associated with status. This status acts as a motivator for them. More so in cases where the job is not high on either purpose or money as motivators.
The office is not just a place for work. It can also be a getaway or escape from the pressures at home. To quote sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “tired parents flee a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the orderliness and harmony at work”. What makes the workplace even more appealing in modern times is how these have transformed into comfortable, fun, and engaging spaces. Organizations have taken many of these initiatives with an eye on employee engagement.
With an increasing amount of time spent at work, organizations have encouraged people to socialize at work beyond work talk. But in WFH, this socialization gets restricted. People now act increasingly more efficient. WFH thus takes away the ‘hidden pockets of inefficiency’ as stated by Arlie Hochschild.
Although WFH or flexible work policies have been around, yet takers have been limited even among target profiles like women employees. Now is a good time for companies to dig deep into available data and experiences to identify what’s working and what’s not. But that’s just the starting point. There is a need to look at WFH post-COVID19 through fresh eyes. This perspective will help to understand the world of WFH as it looks through the eyes of different employee groups. It will not help to use Taylor-like filters in designing WFH policies.
Parameters like work timing or hours of work may need to be looked at differently. For instance, on any workday, people typically have a mix of individual and collaborative work. Collaborative work will need to get scheduled and blocked on the calendar, but solo work timings can be kept flexible. A night owl might prefer to start post-dinner while an early bird may like to start first thing in the morning when distractions are less, and internet speed is good. This kind of flexibility will give people some space to design their version of WFH rather than being forced to follow a mandate. If employees are productive at the end of the day, then whether they work in the night or the morning or whether they worked in their formal pants or track pants, it should not be a concern for the employer. Trust is an essential underlying parameter here. In some cultures, like the US or Germany, trust is task-based. In India, trust is relationship-based. In virtual working, trust between people becomes even more important whether it is with a colleague, customer or manager. Here, unlike western cultures, turning in your work on time without follow-ups, may not be enough for someone to trust you. Rather than broad brushing WFH policies, it might be useful to reflect on some of these culturally relevant nuances.
Another area of consideration can be around socialization. People differ in their need for socialization at work. In group-based cultures like India, collaboration, camaraderie, and interpersonal relationships are more valued. Going to the office is not just about getting the job done but also about the meeting, socializing, and networking. During lunchtime, Indians across offices in India and even overseas, look forward to sitting together and sharing a meal. Taking shared coffee breaks, walking around the office building with a colleague post-lunch are moments that people miss during WFH. The need for finding creative solutions for people to socialize while working from home is perhaps universal. However, group and relationship-based cultures like India might need it more than individualistic cultures like the US or Sweden.
Keeping in mind these sociological and cultural factors as well as some of the deeper universal needs will help organizations design WFH solutions that are likely to be more productive and sustainable. In a post COVID world, identifying a better blend of WFH and work from the office, can have many positive consequences for society as a whole. There is typically an opportunity in every crisis, and an expanded role for WFH can be a happy consequence for many.