A few weeks ago, I had gone back to my workplace after a span of nearly six months of working from home. There were some urgent matters to attend to, in person, and so, I made the customary 700-kilometre journey from my home for a stay of a few weeks. Mercifully, after lots of delays, I managed to get my first shot before the trip.
While buying some groceries at a shop near the place I stay, I spotted a tired middle-aged couple. They had travelled around 25 or 30 kilometres from outside the town. The wife hurriedly asked the shopkeeper if she could get a new smartphone for her reticent husband. He had a feature phone which he used for making calls, but they were in desperate need of a smartphone, as the block development officer (BDO), under whose jurisdiction their village fell, mandated that all villagers be added to a WhatsApp group for conveying information regarding agricultural loans.
I asked her casually why the need arose for a WhatsApp group. She said the BDO had said the group was necessary, because COVID had not yet disappeared, and, in the event of another lockdown, how would the block function without constant communication? “Onek mushkiley toh shongshaar chawle. Ekhon bhaat kinbo na phone?” (“We struggle a lot for our livelihood. Should we now buy food or a phone?”)
When asked what her budget was, the woman said she had only two-and-a-half thousand rupees with her. The shopkeeper told her that the cheapest smartphone he had was around 4000 INR. Unable to haggle about the price, she said she would come back with the money soon. I picked up my groceries and went back to my lodgings.
It has been over a month now, and I have not been able to get that woman out of my head.
We are now in the last quarter of 2021. The government has stepped up its role in vaccination, with various clinics and hospitals in India’s hinterland being supplied with vaccines at regular intervals. After having vaccination drives organized, various companies have ordered employees to work from offices, albeit for two or three days a week. As India gets neck-deep in festivities all over the country, people are also looking forward to getting back to offices after that.
In the state of West Bengal, schools, colleges and universities have been shut since March 2020. Classes and examinations have moved online. Teaching in a public-funded university myself, I’ve seen how the general air of cluelessness surrounding video-conferencing, that pervaded the first half of 2020, has now largely disappeared, and how more students and teachers feel comfortable using Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. Does that mean that everyone is all okay with this? Not quite.
One thing cannot be denied: the pandemic has made us all restless. The more privileged lot amongst us have all tried channelling that restlessness into their online lives. We’ve gone from TikTok to Instagram Reels and MX Takatak, we’ve tried picking up other skills during the lockdown, and currently, we seem to have moved on from dalgona coffee to dalgona candy, thanks to a hit Korean show on Netflix. And people possessing money and wanderlust have looked for any excuse to just get out of their homes. Cinemas are starting to come back to normal, albeit cautiously. Tourists are turning up at weekend destinations in large numbers.
Considering everything that is happening, anyone could be forgiven for thinking we have defeated COVID-19. The short answer is no.
The pandemic isn’t going away anywhere soon. In June this year, after various attempts to curb the spread of the virus, Singapore posited that the pandemic might never end. It called for the lifting of restrictions, noting that a “living with COVID-19” strategy was the only way out. In recent weeks, as a possible third wave has broken out in the island nation, there seems to be a broad consensus emerging that a “late pandemic” scenario, where people learn to live with the virus, will persist for years. This is also a strategy that has been recently adopted in New Zealand, after months of insisting on a “zero-case” future.
One could argue that the US economy has been dealing with this “late pandemic” scenario since, well, the pandemic. Most pharmaceutical majors have manufactured millions of vaccines for the country’s population. In fact, getting a shot would be child’s play for anyone. Yet, somehow, due to partisan politics, rumour-mongering, and a deeply-entrenched mistrust of the government among certain sections of society, getting the vaccine has become an ideological issue, with many people refraining from getting vaccinated as a choice. People have been dying of COVID-19 in hordes even as recently as a couple of months ago, and yet lots of people choose to endanger themselves as well as others around them.
However, this is not the only phenomenon playing out in the US. There’s something called “the Great Resignation” happening for the past year or so, where hordes and hordes of workers and executives are quitting their jobs in various sectors, from tech to education. The shift to remote work, coupled with a pandemic that never seems to end, has given rise to the widespread belief that most people deserve a better life. Instead of wanting to slave away in big cities, people have been moving back home, and are ready to work remotely, while spending time with their families.
It is unfair to compare the job scenarios in the US and Singapore with that of India. Teledensity is the foundation of remote working, with access to electronic devices being a critical issue. Both the US and Singapore, as well as much of Europe, have well-entrenched high-speed internet networks, as well as easy access to electronic devices. In contrast, the Indian economy still struggles with connecting to the internet. As I had noted in an earlier story on work from home and the question of class, working from home is a privilege some of us can afford to enjoy, simply because we can spare the money to buy the devices needed to engender such a reality. Outside this bubble, there are far too many people for whom the purchase of a single electronic device is a heavy issue. For instance, the woman I spoke about in the beginning had to contend with the reality that her savings were not enough to get even an entry-level smartphone.
The cost of data may be low in India, but it’s the cost of the electronic devices which is the real kicker. This problem has only worsened in 2021, with a global shortage of semiconductors leading to increase in prices of electronic devices such as laptops and phones, and various other consumer products, including cars. And it might only get uglier. On October 8, 2021, 136 countries signed a global tax treaty, under which any enterprise operating in a particular country and having a large customer base without a country-based office will have to pay a 15% tax on the profit it makes, from 2023. While this means good news for governments, it actually means bad news for consumers. Due to this, multinational companies such as Apple, Google, Netflix, Amazon and so on can start raising prices for their digital packages and subscriptions. There’s no guarantee that median incomes of countries are going to keep up with this probable increase in prices.
In Asian cultures, a job is a coveted thing. Most people have their entire lives and self-worth tied down to their jobs. It does not matter if they enjoy the job or not, or if they get harassed, bullied or gaslit at the workplace. For most families struggling to make ends meet, all that matters at the end of every month is the sight of the earner’s salary getting credited. And when you take into account that incomes in most South and Southeast Asian economies, including India, are on the lower side, holding on to any job often becomes a matter of life or death for less-advantaged families.
One thing that most commentators get wrong about the entire discourse surrounding work-from-home is that, more often than not, the decision of whether to work from office or from home is not a one-size-fits-all one. As much as economic realities shape global working and company cultures, the socio-cultural aspect often gets overlooked. In India, for instance, most people equate holding a steady job with the image of the office. For all the buzz around freelancing these days, a regular job is a more enticing proposition for people any day, but it is firmly tied to the formal structures of the office in our collective subconscious. There’s a reason for that.
Access to electronic devices and high-speed internet is only one part of the work-from-home scenario. The second—and more commonly overlooked—aspect is the issue of space. A person trying to work remotely needs a quiet, safe and comfortable space where one can work for long hours. However, there is a crisis of space in India’s less-privileged households. It is not uncommon to find entire families somehow living in single rooms, or multiple paying guests staying together, dormitory-style. This is in addition to the fact that there could be a single smartphone for the entire family for all purposes.
The issue of mental health also arises. Much as the privileged ones amongst us pretend that remote work increases productivity, the fact remains that, for people barely scraping enough together to survive, the office becomes a space of escape.
Another issue is that of the generation gap. While the pandemic caught everyone on the wrong foot, mid-career and senior executives and employers have been hit the hardest. This demographic has been used to face-to-face interactions and dealing with employees in person. The sudden shift to work-from-home has been accepted grudgingly, but there is no denying the disquiet and restlessness bubbling within them. When offices reopen after a long hiatus, these people would be the happiest.
As we approach the end of the year, it is being assumed that most offices in the private sector, as well as schools and colleges, will reopen for in-person business again. One aspect, however, goes unsaid in the Indian context. There’s an uncomfortable truth about remote work in India that employers would rather brush under the carpet, and that is the question of trust.
In these last few months, the ability to work remotely had also introduced people to the joys of exploring other pursuits outside their professional life. I know for a fact that many employers actually felt endangered by this. Forever used to an in-person dynamic where they could keep tabs on everyone working, they have found it hard to digest the fact that employees could actually have a life outside work, as they have felt work cannot be done properly at home. This again ties back to this notion that is hardwired within us—that the office is the only place where you can be truly efficient.
In such a scenario, will the future of work in India move towards a hybrid existence? While large multinational corporations such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Amazon are actually coming around to the idea of making work-from-home a permanent fixture, and Google is actually shuffling its salary structures to conform to this in the US, all of them are strangely silent when it comes to India. If they operate in a culture where the office is held sacrosanct, there’s nothing to be done there, really.
From personal experience, I can vouch for the fact that hybrid working, however, does not suit all sectors. Software services and sectors relying heavily on creativity, and digital tools can function completely remotely. In higher education, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is trying to harp on the idea of “blended learning”, where they grant the freedom to institutions to take a certain percentage of classes online. However, if the ability to work remotely becomes an issue of class and privilege, this strategy will enjoy limited success, with institutions willing to forgo this suggestion until the digital divide can be more effectively breached.
The pandemic has left its mark on all of us. We have struggled to adapt physically and mentally to the idea of working from home. Now, with increased vaccinations, there will be a mad rush to get back to offices. Employers and employees will now have to struggle with a new late-pandemic reality, where productivity and well-being will have to be balanced. But in an uber-capitalist world that has historically made its fortunes on deadlines, exploitation of labour and “hire and fire” practices, will this fragile balance be maintained? Only time will tell.
Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.
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