Did you hear that? That’s the sound of all the CEOs and HR managers of the world collectively yelling ‘eureka!’ as the coronavirus reaches their work bays and cabins and cubicles. Behold the frantic rediscovery of an idea that we should really be taking for granted in 2020: work from home.
Thanks to COVID19, the idea that employees don’t need to be yoked to their desks has suddenly become hot - maybe because there’s a theory that heat renders the virus inert. (The truth: we don’t know that for sure.) At the time I am writing this, a big fintech startup has shuttered two of its offices in north India for at least a couple of days while it cleanses the premises, after one of its employees tested positive for the bug. Down south, in the city of Hyderabad, there was mass panic after an employee of a Dutch company tested positive and an entire building was evacuated. All employees in these locations have been instructed to work from home.
Common sense, you’d say, but I worry that even this common sense, potentially lifesaving decision is already being spun into something grotesque, amid speculation that the global economy will lose shitloads - millions? billions? trillions of dollars? - as the virus continues on its rampage. I have heard conversations rejoicing how progressive employers who always believed that work from home is a smart business decision are finally getting their moment under the sun. Corporate leaders are busy praising their teams who’ve managed the transition from office to home seamlessly, without any business loss.
In short, even the coronavirus, a global scourge that has killed thousands of people, is being put to work to prop up the corporate world’s two favourite words: efficiency and productivity.
So even as CEOs order their employees to "mandatorily" work from home till further notice, I suspect that the motivation behind it is not employee wellbeing but merely safeguarding efficiency and productivity. If you are finding it hard to work - irrespective of where you are - because you are paralysed by panic attacks about the end of the world, you aren’t helping this grand display of corporate agility, and you won’t be thanked when your employer wins the ‘GREAT WORKPLACE!’ award.
Then there’s the stunning lack of awareness of the privilege inherent in this celebration of telecommuting. Who cares that the people most at risk of catching the virus - those who have no option but to put themselves out there every day because of the nature of their work - are also the ones denied this luxury. And no, this group doesn’t include only working-class people. Spare a thought for doctors and other healthcare professionals who can’t afford to operate via email and Slack.
I am also deeply sceptical about the theory some are propagating that after COVID19, work from home will become the new normal as workers refuse to fall back into old routines, and employers magically realise how employee- and environment-friendly this arrangement is. Even if work from home is the very apogee of efficiency, employers won’t give up their control fetish so easily.
So, here are my questions for you. Has your employer announced a work from home policy yet? If yes, has your workload increased, decreased or stayed the same? And do you think your bosses will remain open to the practice even after the current crisis has passed?
PS: Thank god our schools and colleges, which have also started sending kids home until the crisis de-escalates, aren’t obsessed with productivity. Wait. Are they? My child is still too young for school, but if you have school-age children who are now staying at home, do share your experience. How did teachers and principals communicate their decision? Have they assigned extra homework or announced extra classes after these forced holidays are over? After all, there’s a project - sorry, a syllabus - to finish.
PPS: Here’s a poster I designed. Feel free to send it to your boss.
Until next week, stay safe. And don’t facepalm with unwashed hands.