Working from Home: Not the Utopia We Were Expecting
June 10, 2020
Before the pandemic took over our lives, in the long-ago days of the old normal, we all sometimes wished we could simply work from home. Those mornings when you had to sacrifice a deep, peaceful sleep to head to the office. When you were having guests over for dinner and you wanted to stay home and prepare the meal over the course of the day. When the children were home on vacation all day, but you still needed to earn your bread and butter. While no one wished for a deadly global pandemic to close the office, we are finally getting our much-anticipated taste of working from the comfort of home. Is it what we were dreaming of?
To my utter surprise, when our country director, Faisal, raised the question in our weekly, all-staff catch-up call, a staggering 85 percent of my colleagues said they wanted to come back to the office as soon as possible. The others offered only an ambivalent “it depends” or a vague mix of office and home. Could it be that our dreamed-of utopia is not what we expected?
To my utter surprise, a staggering 85 percent of my colleagues said they wanted to come back to the office as soon as possible.
The first few days went well, of course. Perhaps you awoke at exactly 9:00 a.m. to join the morning Zoom or Teams meeting. In our office in Dhaka, calls without video are the norm, making it quite irresistible to meet in some comfy pajamas. Who hasn’t felt the thrill of having breakfast in the middle of a meeting? Would these pleasures have been possible if we had to set the alarm early to make the trip to the office? Think of all those commute hours in traffic, saved, especially for Dhaka residents. Now we can spend 24/7 with parents, spouses, and children. Some of my colleagues luxuriated in spreading eight hours of office work over 24 hours, while others simply enjoyed the comfort, convenience, and flexibility of working from their own home. It was a paradise, but, alas, short-lived.
Work-from-home advocates have rallied to a 2015 study in Oxford’s Quarterly Journal of Economics that measured a 13 percent increase in employee performance at a Chinese travel company that switched to working from home. Yet coauthor Nicholas Bloom now predicts that working from home under Covid-19 will result in falling productivity due to four factors: children, space, privacy, and choice.
In our office, the time and energy liberated by suspending the daily Dhaka commute gave work-at-home productivity an initial boost. But then the burn-out started, as professional life and household chores flowed together to create a workday that never ends. Colleagues in the Bangladesh office complain that they can’t draw the line between office work and household responsibilities. Women have been especially hard hit by traditional gender roles that still haunt the household. Cooking, cleaning, washing, and overseeing the children’s education always seem to fall to them. While the internet suggests noise-cancelling headphones and setting boundaries during office hours, a female colleague told us that it is simply not possible for her to sit at home and dedicate 7.5 hours to uninterrupted office work without her family interfering. Now that she’s home, she’s irresistibly available and expected to take part in all the family matters and household work.
Is it a problem with the men? Their struggles to help gave us quite a laugh, I admit, but our male colleagues wanted sympathy for their predicament, too. Their working wives are on edge, it seems. One mistake in the performance of a chore can trigger a tsunami of taunts. One exclaimed that men don’t grow up doing housework, and they deserve credit now for trying! Another told us he gets into more trouble trying to help, so he just stays out of the way (to which another colleague responded that sitting out would land him in trouble, too, for acting like a lord).
No wonder, then, that my colleagues are yearning to get back to the office. While some major corporations in Western countries are thinking of adopting permanent work-from-home practices, our work in the development sector requires our physical presence. Our projects involving tannery workers or women entrepreneurs in the villages of Bangladesh can’t be conducted over the internet, and most of the people we need to reach don’t have smart phones. The Asia Foundation’s capacity-building, training, and monitoring work requires the physical presence of our colleagues.
Productivity may have briefly increased due to working from home, but it will undermine creativity and collaborative thinking in the long term. Being around colleagues and working as a team have synergistic effects. Social interaction is also extremely important for mental well-being. There is a paramount need in most humans for in-person, social contact. Not every communication can take place over a call. Staff in our office have complained that they can’t understand the reactions of colleagues or partners through a call, even a video call. Sometimes, despite our creeping dependency on texting and email, we really need to walk over to our coworker’s desk.
But until the lockdowns end, home is where many of us will be stuck, so here are few of the internet’s more sensible suggestions that could be useful to those of us working in South Asia.
- Dress for work, even at home. It’s one of the practices that can trigger a psychological state of readiness for office work.
- Switch to video calls. They’re not perfect, but video can give a better sense of your colleagues’ feelings and reactions. And it’s another reason to get into that office outfit and office state of mind.
- Abandon the strict nine-to-five. It’s unrealistic when you’re working at home. Office work should be distributed throughout the day, incorporated into a schedule that also reserves time for chores and family, to cut down on stress.
- Set work priorities. Not every email needs an answer now. You can’t be on every single Zoom call or webinar. When your work spans several time zones, communications come at all times of the day, and no one will blame you for not responding right away. Prioritize the tasks that need to be done first, and address them according to your schedule.
Finally, here are some resources from Harvard Business School about navigating the treacherous waters of remote working: have a look if you’re still feeling overwhelmed. You only get two free articles if you’re not a subscriber, but it’s better than nothing.
Samiha Jamil is a consultant for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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