It came true during the lockdown with a vengeance and for many people, even Zoom fatigue and the occasional claustrophobia didn’t matter. Given an option, many middle-class Indians seem to prefer the comfort of their homes. Zero commuting is a boon and they have enjoyed owning their time rather than working on borrowed time.

Take Misha Naveen, a 27-year-old digital marketer based in Hyderabad. Every morning, before she starts her working day, she completes her workout, puts on her playlist and makes herself some cold coffee. She still has a month to go before she is expected to abandon her home office, but the jitters have already set in. Having worked from office for five years and freelanced for two years, she doesn’t want to trade her routine for the sterile environment of her erstwhile office complemented by bad coffee and unsolicited socialising.

Those who have no choice are contemplating returning to work from office with some amount of trepidation as the nation prepares to go back to pre-pandemic times. Surveys offer differing perspectives. A study done by Microsoft this year shows three in four of respondents want more flexible work options, although 57 per cent of the respondents feel overworked with the blurring of work-life boundaries. Another study by real estate firm JLL from July last year shows 82 per cent of the respondents missed the collaborative aspect of working from office. Yet, for Hyderabad-based nutritionist Rajeshwari Reddy, the very thought of dressing up in formals, rushing for the Metro, reaching office at 10AM sharp, sitting in a cage-like cubicle for nine hours, makes her head spin and her heart beat 10 times faster than it usually beats. “Some sort of anxiety, you can say,” she adds.

After working from home since March 2020, WFO (work from office) feels alien to many. Just as work from home (WFH) used to feel during the initial days as families juggled household chores with Zoom meetings. With the date of reopening looming, their insecurities are growing bigger. Anxiety to be around people and the constant struggle of pretending to be someone they are not. Fear of being judged for minuscule mistakes, discomfort of losing all the me-time in the morning, insecurity of whether the PPTs would be up to the mark or not, the feeling that time is stalking them.
There’s some excitement as well. The happiness of meeting office buddies, reliving those tea breaks and chatting on a wide range of matters.

Management guru Nirmalya Kumar says the problem is the mismatch between expectations created now that employees see WFH as a legitimate option and the needs of companies that may require physical return. In general, employees fall in three segments: those who are delighted to be back in the office because they prefer the social interaction and delineation between work/home; those who prefer WFH; and those who like a mix with the ability to come in a few days a week. Like for Reddy, who says over time, WFH has helped her find several sides of her being which she was completely unaware of. “For example, how efficiently I function when working remotely. Work from home has strengthened my relationship with myself. Organisations should go four days a week in order to ensure a good work-life balance and mental health of the organisation.”

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The problem for firms though is meeting these differential expectations while overcoming the organisational challenges that WFH brings for monitoring and control, developing shared values, evaluating performance holistically and establishing routines. Some people thrive from face-to-face communication, and often more collaboration can happen when people are in the same space. Those who do not have enough space at home and those who do not have the right support and resources either in terms of equipment or connectivity would benefit from getting back into the office.

On the other hand, points out London-based behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal, working from home along with managing other caring responsibilities has been good for some people, allowing them the flexibility to work around their own schedule. It is to be seen how parent-friendly the return to work will be, too, and if the new way of working would be more gender-equal. Women and, especially, mothers were affected by the pandemic; so it is up to each organisation to consider what they can change to allow people to choose a way of work that works for them best. Some people who have chronic illnesses and disabilities have also found working from home much easier—most workplaces are not adaptable and inclusive of both invisible and visible disabilities. Adds Agarwal: “People have found working from home less judgemental and women have enjoyed the freedom from the male gaze. Many women report being more confident and comfortable with their bodies without the constant pressure to live up to societal norms and expectations, or the sexual harassment on the streets and in workplaces. Organisations have to consider how they can move to a more hybrid way of working to support individual needs.”

Both organisations and individuals have to prepare themselves. It won’t be easy. Some organisations are wired for the future. Take sheroes, a website for women which employs 75 people across 25 locations. Its founder, Sairee Chahal, says they are going to be 100 per cent remote in the foreseeable future. “Our teams are highly distributed across the globe. And I don’t imagine having one office for all of them as a practical option. Before the pandemic, we were about 50 per cent remote, now we are 100 per cent remote. Our teams work out of places like Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa and also out of small villages in Bihar and Jharkhand, and as far off as Berlin, Toronto and Vietnam,” she says.
All their systems are online and anyone with a laptop and high-speed internet can be part of the team. But not every job is like that. The service industry is all about the special touch, the personalised feeling, the customised privilege.

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Dr Chandrakant makes the point that even at the height of the pandemic, half the formal organised workforce was at work, whether it was health services or the banking sector. Even when the pandemic is over, he notes, the virus will stay. But 16 months into the pandemic, there is better understanding of the virus and how to deal with it. “There has to be open conversation between the employers and the employees about addressing concerns and anxieties.”

For some though the change has been so radical that returning to the pre-2020 status seems difficult. A content strategist Zoya says: “These 16 months have shifted not just our work culture but many of us as individuals. The ease of working from home, even though it had its share of challenges, has become ingrained in us. Having to go back to a designated workspace would surely be a little unsettling in the beginning. As my office space isn’t that far from my home, it won’t eat too much into my time, but it’ll still impact the routine I had got accustomed to. Also, not many offices are endowed with a bunk space where employees can take a break or a siesta to recharge. Staying home gave us the liberty to take rest when the screens felt too heavy on the eyes, or we just needed to lie down for a while,” she says.

Are organisations ready to support the importance of mental health while giving their teams the leeway to be their own person, for a healthy balance between work and rest? Being forced to stay rooted to your seat like the old times is going to make many, especially the young, anxious. It will make them question the very meaning of work and the reasons for doing it.

Paranoia about this virus has consumed many and the hyper vigilance with regards to “safety” has eroded the most basic behaviours. Take, for example, stepping out of home. A clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani says she knows people who haven’t moved out of the house since March 2020, when the lockdown was announced. Now, when asked to report even for a day or two every week at the office, they are panic-stricken. They are restless, sleepless, popping anti-anxiety pills, crying as the reporting days draw near.

Enlightened bosses know this and are taking it slow. Radhika Gupta, CEO of Edelweiss Asset Management, says they are in no rush given that they are a service industry and can easily work from home. When surveyed, 75 per cent of their staff (240 across 22 cities) said they wanted a hybrid model as offices reopened. And that’s what they will move towards.

While WFH is seamless for the service industry, the manufacturing industry, due to the nature of its work, demands physical presence at work, and at best lends itself to a hybrid model for certain functions. Yet, Ashok Leyland CEO Vipin Sondhi says given its digital capabilities, the company was able to adopt WFH across all corporate functions. “We as an organisation also reached out virtually to our teams, ecosystem and customers to impart training given that we also had several new products rolling out. All our product launches were also phygital [physical and digital] during these challenging times, and quite grand,” he says.

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They have prepared as much as possible for WFH. They have created adequate safety protocols; framed SOPs and communicated the dos & don’ts starting from how they should enter the office; the spacing in the lift lobby as well as passengers allowed in the lift; and designed protocols at the lunch table. They have also discouraged physical meetings with external participants, in particular.

When Covid hit, WFH was not new but working from your hometown certainly was. Navdeep, 27, was born and raised in Andhra Pradesh, which he left in 2009 after Class 10 to first go to Hyderabad for IIT-JEE AIEEE preparation and then to college in JNTU. Now, here he was living with his sexagenarian parents for an indefinite period for the first time after nearly 11 years.

His parents live alone in a village while he works in Bengaluru, and his sisters live abroad. As weeks passed, it struck him that all these years he had an outsider’s view of the house. He hadn’t noticed that his father had lost so much muscle with age that his legs were not able to balance his heavy upper body anymore and he found it hard to walk in a straight line. He had not noticed that his 67-year-old mother wakes up with 10 different pains every day and survives on a daily dose of painkillers. He had not noticed that she is terribly lonely while his father still works at least 10 hours a day, and she waits for him to come back. Probably, that is why when he was in Bengaluru, she would not want to hang up the phone while he would get bored and irritated. From a distance, they seemed very young for their age but from up close, it turned out that they were barely managing.

The last 15 months enabled him and others like him to understand and manage these problems for them. Now that things seem to be improving, it is time to go back to office. For many, the choice between WFH and WFO is one with deep implications for more than just themselves. Who knows such will our weekdays become that we may well ask, like the Dowager in Downton Abbey did so famously in the days the leisure classes did not work: “What is a weekend?” #KhabarLive #hydnews