COVID-19: An Unexpected Catalyst For Work From Home Culture

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A few years ago, I made the switch to work from home. This meant I couldn’t avail of plum job opportunities that I might have otherwise pursued, had I continued with the usual 9-5 commute on Delhi’s choked roads. But we all know that to get to work at 9 am means to leave the house at least an hour earlier—depending on where one lives. We also know that when our thumb jabs the biometric device in the office in the evening, more often than not, it is after 6 pm. As a result, the average working professional manages to reach home only after 7 pm.

This daily grind is especially taxing on working mothers. We manage to squeeze in only about a couple of hours a day to bond with our children. We are also unable to share the burden of raising our children and running the household with our ageing parents and in-laws. Eventually, our elders bail us out by shouldering the lion’s share of such responsibilities.

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In my case, I started toying with the idea of working from home when I was done stretching myself thin to be a productive employee and being there for my family. While I was physically present in the office, I would be consumed by guilt at the thought of neglecting my son once he was home from school—despite my mother cheerfully bending over backwards to attend to his every need and comfort. The other issue that bothered me endlessly was the parenting responsibilities that my extremely doting mother had to shoulder, in addition to juggling various household chores. It was unfair on my part to expect her to take her grandson for football classes, Math tuition and to the park—while I worked from the air-conditioned comfort of my office. Soon enough, tired of waiting for the clock to strike 6 pm, I took the risk and quit my job. And like a woman possessed, I started exploring work-from-home opportunities. I thought it was a doable goal as I am a communications professional and—thankfully— not a brain surgeon who can’t exercise the choice to work from a remote location.

This daily grind is especially taxing on working mothers. We manage to squeeze in only about a couple of hours a day to bond with our children.

Boy, was I wrong! It wasn’t long before I realised that the Indian corporate work culture is several years behind the Western markets when it comes to offering flexible telecommuting options to employees. Through my various interactions with prospective employers, it came to light that organisations are happiest when their employees are physically present in the office, even if ‘productivity’ implies taking more water cooler breaks than is necessary or socialising a tad longer in the office kitchen when a colleague’s birthday is celebrated.

In the work that I do, successful models of remote working can be chalked out, as long as work targets are strictly adhered to and one is readily available on the phone/email/Zoom for work updates and virtual meetings. However, as it turned out, the biggest hurdle I faced was the mindset of organisations. I could never fathom the rigidity of hiring managers in this regard.

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Senior leaders were—and many still are—wary of embracing telecommuting work options for their teams. In a bid to understand the organisations’ point of view, I also tried negotiating a work structure that allowed me to work half-day in the office and the remaining hours from home. Or coming in thrice a week and working from home for the remaining two days. My tone was always excessively deferential and apologetic to a fault when I would timidly put forth the request to work from home. While there were polite murmurs on the other side of the interview table, India Inc. was still on its guard and reluctant to offer me the flexibility that I—and so many working mothers like me—desire from our professional life.

While this struggle was on, I fortuitously stumbled upon a full-time opportunity that allowed me to work from home. Needless to add, I grabbed it with both hands. Though it might not have been as lucrative as a ‘regular’ full-time role in a larger organisation, I was grateful for the motherly privileges it afforded, perks that had been denied to me earlier.

In the first few months into the new role, I saw a positive difference the work from home scenario had made to my life. I tried to be as disciplined as possible by logging in before office hours officially started so that I could snatch the precious twenty minutes in the afternoon to hop across the road to pick up my son when his school bus arrived. Also, just being there for my mother should she need something was reassuring, to say the least. As time went by, I observed that I was far more productive when I worked from home than I had ever been even in the most congenial of office environments. I attributed this primarily to the soul-satisfaction I derived from ‘seeing’ my son grow up before my eyes and bonding better with my family instead of being constantly stressed out about getting ready and out of the door every morning.

Crucially, I didn’t have to face peak-hour traffic or Delhi’s toxic pollution or agonise over what to wear to office. All these big and small benefits helped me experience a work-life balance that I had until that point only read about in glossy magazines that urged women to embrace a holistic lifestyle.

I also came to realise that the hype over the ‘flexibility’ offered to our tribe of telecommuters is primarily restricted to cutting down on commuting time. All things considered, the average ‘work from home’ job description has all the trappings of a full-time ‘office-going’ role—and then some.

While the benefits accruing from my changed work scenario were immediately visible to my family and me—work from home also brought with it some new prickly issues.

A person could be stuck in an unfortunate situation where the boss starts his day in the afternoon and keeps pinging you about work late into the evening as he is a self-admitted night owl—and is probably playing catch up with the precious lost morning hours. While this was experienced by an acquaintance who also works remotely, I have my own unique and amusing ‘work from home’ challenges to share. However, this deserves a separate post as it will shed light on the flip side of the coin!

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To cut to the chase, it has been a few years since I started working from home and am grateful that a handful of forward-looking organisations gave me the opportunity to exercise this option. But if one were to study the corporate scene in India, organisations still have a long way to go before they truly evolve in this regard.

But then again, the coronavirus pandemic has made the world a topsy-turvy place. Overnight, along with social distancing, the new normal is to ‘work from home’.

COVID-19 has accomplished something that was almost unthinkable in the pre-pandemic corporate world. The newly sanitised corporates have adjusted to the trying circumstances and introduced ‘work from home’ as a mandatory policy—at least for now.

Those who were sceptical of the efficacy of this modern-day work culture seem to have had a change of heart. Teams, across departments, have united in the virtual world where earlier—even as recently as February—siloes might have existed in the brick-and-mortar office space.

Notably, women are expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new normal of work. The coronavirus is an unexpected catalyst for opening up more remote working opportunities for our gender. Further, the fundamental disruption in the way people work will enable more women to participate in the workforce, without having to compromise on the home front.

Having said that, one needs to wait and watch how this tectonic workplace transformation will redefine how we all live and work in the long-term.

What is clear, however, is that I may never again have to sound apologetic when I seek a work from home opportunity in the future.

The new disruption at work will lead the way forward.

The author is a communications professional based in New Delhi. The views expressed are her own.

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