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Overworked @home: New norm of work from home turning out to be a taxing one for employees

Logging extra hours, guilt-tripping on lack of productivity, and sacrificing family time — with office & home now under the same roof, WFH contours are not exactly a win

Published: 11th June 2020 04:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th June 2020 04:35 AM   |  A+A-

illustration: tapas ranjan

Express News Service

CHENNAI: A bright white light pierced into my bedroom in the wee hours of a Wednesday. After tossing and turning for 15 minutes, I stepped out to check if some divine light had descended on our home, to take us away from the darkness called COVID-19. Alas! It was just light coming in from the hall where my father was working. He pointed towards his laptop, indicating that he was working on a report which was due in a few hours. Grunting, I went back to sleep. Between calls, video-calls, audits and report submission, he finally called it a day at 7 pm, after a 14-hour work schedule.

This was in April, and this pattern became his routine in the ensuing weeks. Known for travelling across the world and disrupting lives, the novel coronavirus has not only changed our habits, interactions and personal sense of fashion, it has also impacted the way we work. What was once a privilege that most of our US-based cousins, uncles and aunts boasted about, work-from-home has now become a new norm, albeit a taxing one for employees in India. Anxiety, work stress, and fewer hours with family have become the usual suspects of this new normal.

9 to 5 no more
My father, S Madhavan, lead auditor of a certification body, prefers starting early in the day because “the Internet speed is usually high then. It is easy for millennials to quickly adapt to this concept. But most people in my age group, including me, prefer having to go over files, and not upload or download anything.” And this is just one of the reasons that his work hours get prolonged. “I believe that the quantum of work is the same but the time taken to do it has increased. What we did in office from 9 to 5, we do at home for extra hours. Work from home depends on so many factors, especially the Internet speed; when the bars go down, our work-time goes up,” he shares.

For Sreenivas Kumar, a developer at a clinical research company, his laptop has become his trusted companion. “I wake up with my laptop and go to bed with it. I am with it all day,” he says. In the pre-COVID days, Sreenivas worked from 9 am to 6 pm. He ensured work was never brought into his abode. But now, the novel virus has brought with it novel problems. Besides the work stress, the absence of work-related set-up bothers him. “In my office, I have two 21-inch computers, an ergonomical chair and a perfect desk with everything to my liking. Now I have to do my work on a 14-inch laptop in an uncomfortable set-up,” he rues. 

A bachelor, Sreenivas also has the added responsibility of juggling work and house chores. “You need to prepare food, answer doorbells while in you are neck-deep in work…all this adds to extended work hours,” he frets.  Echoing his feelings is Subadhra Shriram, a sales advisor and mother of two girls. “Your concentration is divided. As a mother, I have to tend to my kids too, but I am unable to because work takes priority, unintentionally. I also have to be mindful of where I work, how I work,” she opens up. 

The burden of expectations
In this new accommodation, the absence of commute has forced many employees to clock in extra hours. “We are expected to start working at the hour when we’d have otherwise left for office. For example, if you usually leave for office at 8.30 am, you are expected to start working from home then. There is a trust deficit on the employer’s part. They believe that while working from home, people tend to slack,” says Madhavan, whose company has set up daily calls at 2 pm, which continues till 4 pm. “When they want to talk to us face to face, then another call is scheduled over the weekend,” he shares. 
It is this worry of meeting expectations of both employers and clients that has kept Sreenivas and lakhs of his compatriots glued to their screen. With the economy already struggling to be back on its feet, pink slips and pay cuts have seemingly become de rigueur across industries. “Job security. That is our main concern. Though our company has ensured that there will be no job cuts, there is still a fear that lingers in the back of your mind. So you keep getting as many clients as you can from every nook and cranny, to prove your productivity,” Subadhra elaborates. 

And in some other cases like Sreenivas’ company, which is not facing troubled times so far, there have been some lay-offs. “A member in my team was laid off recently. So, his share of work was assigned to me. That is an extra workload,” he says, adding that he has no complaints considering productivity is a prime concern during the lockdown. While the WFH concept may be suitable for certain industries, for some others, it has come more as a bane than a blessing. Take journalists, for instance. With sources not ready to meet, no events in the foreseeable future — most journalists have not had the chance to go on-field to get their job done. “The first two weeks of the lockdown seemed interesting,” says Apoorva Mohan*, who works with an English daily.

“I saw people posting things on social media about cooking interesting dishes, taking up fitness seriously; so I thought maybe I can do that too. But when your home becomes your workspace, then it’s all seamless. I had to work according to the convenience of my sources, pick up the call when they called, sometimes wait for the call for hours on end. This made me feel like I worked the entire day, yet I was not being productive enough.”

RIP family time
The long working hours have also blurred the lines between weekdays and weekends. While Madhavan and Sreenivas have been trying their best to keep off work on weekends, Subadhra and Apoorva have little choice. “There were many calendar holidays in April and May. I had to work even on those days. The reason being — we are anyway at home,” says Subadhra. The present is tense for the youth population, which, Madhavan says, has been working continuously on weekends and holidays. “There is a general sense of fear of losing jobs among youngsters. So they never say no to their employers and the latter take advantage of that,” he opens up.

While one might assume that working remotely is a luxurious experience, the ground reality reveals otherwise. “Family time is just when I have my lunch or dinner. My father is a doctor and so I catch up with him about the virus and all the other happenings. There is no concept called me-time either. Sometimes, when something is due on Monday, I sacrifice even my weekends and all my free time to work on that,” says Sreenivas. 

For Subadhra, it has become difficult to channel the energy of her kids aged five years, and nine months. “They want to play with me or just want to spend time with me, but calls keep me busy. My elder daughter understands that I am working but sometimes she also has a meltdown. Another thing that bothers me is that my kids are getting lesser time to interact with their father, as he works in Dubai. Due to the time difference, whenever he calls me I am in the midst of work. When I get free and call him, the kids are asleep by then. Routines — be it work or family-related – have been disrupted,” she worries. 
Malavika Sankararaman, a regulatory professional – medical devices in Ireland, faced a similar conundrum when she came down to India in March. The lockdown was announced down and her company permitted her to work from home.

Assuming this as an opportunity to spend quality time with her family, she felt thankful. However, a week into it, she realised that she spent even lesser time with them than before. “I followed fixed office timings of 8.5 hours but while working from home, I somehow ended up working for 12-14 hours daily, even though the same job was being done. Despite, toiling for more hours and delivering quality work, I always felt guilty of not being productive as I was working from my “home”. After a point, working from home made me feel like I was living in my office,” she narrates.

With home and office now under the same roof, boundaries that remained between personal and professional life seem to have completely disappeared.The brunt of being ‘available’ beyond normal working hours coupled with the impossibility of disconnecting has made work-from-home anything but a win. Overworked and stressed, they are all eager to go back to the comforts of their office. And with many companies being granted permission to work at 50 per cent capacity, we hope Subadhra and her ilk have their wish fulfilled.

*Name changed (Inputs by Roshne Balasubramanian)



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