Written by Gitanjali Prasad
The reality we are navigating today is surreal. We have a global pandemic where the uncertainty of a disease — and even death — catching us unawares has led to a complete lockdown. It is a crisis of epic proportions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts a global economic downturn, of a kind that the world has not experienced since the Great Depression, and some experts are predicting a drop of $10 trillion in the global GDP.
India is expected to experience the slowest growth in three decades. Many of us face salary cuts, and may lose our jobs. The workplace itself has changed tremendously. The health concerns of people working in close proximity will remain for some time. According to a Bloomberg report (May 8), Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has said that employees may be expected to work remotely till 2021. Other companies have indicated similar policies. People whose jobs do not require much outside interaction will continue to work from home. A Glassdoor survey indicates that 67 per cent of employees would prefer to work from home indefinitely.
As someone who has championed flexible work hours and other work-from-home options for over 25 years, the current scenario is perplexing. In 2020, we have indeed got a new workplace with total flexibility in a way we never imagined as possible. Now that we do have flexible work-from-home arrangements for a very large number of employees, what has the experience been like?
There are clear positives. Released from the stressful, time-consuming daily commute, and the unpredictability of the long work-day, many employees find that they have a new control over their lives. They are able to do meditation and yoga, and better align their circadian rhythms to their work schedules, and therefore, find themselves more productive.
But there are challenges as well. For this is not just flexible working, it is also about social distancing. Many people find themselves in cramped homes, with young children, elderly parents, or both, without the option of going out for a movie, a swim, or for anything that involves close interaction with others. Dual career families, where couples had limited time together in the past and yearned for more family time, now have to spend all their time together: They must do so with no outside distractions. And this is proving to be stressful. Worldwide, domestic abuse has become a problem that often requires outside intervention. Child pornography and child sexual abuse are on the rise. At one level, then, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to re-evaluate every aspect of our lives.
There is, clearly, a great requirement for counselling, for more harmonious family relationships, as also for childcare support and housework help. People who are working from home, and are committed to the same output that they had delivered earlier; and, many families with both spouses in equally demanding jobs with very similar financial packages, will have to figure out an equitable division of housework, childcare and other responsibilities. Organisations may need to pitch in with childcare and other assistance. Couples and families will need to look deep within to identify individual strengths and weaknesses, and see how these can be used to create a loving and harmonious environment.
Organisations will need to be mindful of drawing, and adhering to, boundaries of when employees are expected to be on call, so that the office does not intrude too much into their private lives at home. In the future, would organisations consider allocating the money spent on reduced office spaces towards the salaries of employees? Would they transfer the money spent on administrative costs such as internet charges, laptops, printers and scanners to employees?
They will also need to find creative ways to engage employees and encourage bonding through regular meetings and get-togethers, either in limited groups or virtually. Initiatives such as fun competitions encompassing everything from cooking, singing, dancing, scrabble, or even antakshari via apps such as Zoom or Say Namaste may help to create camaraderie in a COVID- and post-COVID world.
The COVID crisis has seen an outpouring of jingoism, racism and hate, but also of selfless courage, commitment to service, compassion and love. Many urban middle-class families in India are learning to cook, clean and become self-sufficient. They now know that one can survive without fancy holidays, entertainment, eating out and ordering in. Food photos have replaced selfies on social media! Cooking has become a source of not just sustenance but of joy, for people of all ages. Our children are being given an opportunity to learn the true values of life and relationships.
This is a truly frightening, stressful and uncertain time. But it does appear that the planet has pressed a reset button, offering us the opportunity to build more fulfilling lives. It is our chance to build a better world.
Prasad writes on work-family issues, and is an executive-life coach
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