Ever since the lockdown was imposed, most professionals shifted to working from home to abide by social distancing and lack of public transport. In a way, it's great since you don't have to travel on a crowded local train anymore and waste hours on travel each day. Some may call it more relaxing as you can sit back and put your feet up whenever you deem fit, others may be bored with working alone.
Whatever it is, we can all agree that this arrangement gives us the freedom to be our own boss - we can get away with oversleeping, attend meetings while wearing pajamas, or work on our bed rather than the usual desk set-up. But these perks that we often make memes about or glorify on social media form just the tip of the iceberg of working from home.
The deeper connotations are hidden under the waters but because we're so busy with our own routines, we may have not noticed them. The upper-middle class has comfortably adjusted to this 'new normal' but are all Indians happy with this new arrangement? Moreover, does India have the infrastructure to support a WFH culture? A recent World Bank paper says that Indian workers are severely disadvantaged by the WFH phenomenon and most Indians can’t switch to a WFH set-up.
Most Indians don't have a WFH friendly job
While employees in the information and communication sector have created an office space in their homes and work smoothly through Zoom meetings, there's a huge section of workers unable to make that transition.
It's a no-brainer that hospitality workers such as a cashier at McDonalds or a waiter at Udipi cannot possibly have a WFH alternative for their job. Rather, they're replaced by apps. Numerous other jobs such as tailors, vendors, security personnel, mechanics, electronics repair-persons, every visible job that you observed while walking the streets requires the person to be in the workspace. Sadly, they can't work behind a laptop screen.
According to the World Bank, a country's level of economic development determines if remote working is possible there. This means all middle to low-income countries are not ready for WFH conditions which include India.
A common problem in low-income countries such as India is that a lot of jobs that exist in the country are prone to labor market vulnerability. This term is used to describe all the ways workers may face exploitation or be denied benefits from the employment sector. World Bank says that India has a lot of workers vulnerable to unfair laws and no job protection. Moreover, people working in these informal or self-owned businesses cannot be shifted to the digital space.
Consider the situation of a toy store owner, who is essentially self-employed and falls outside the scope of coverage of employment benefits. After being asked to shut shop or doing it voluntarily due to losses during the lockdown, it is up to him to invest in a website for toys in order to work from home. However, competing in an online toy market is very different from having a physical shop. It's not entirely feasible to expect these self-employed store-owners to shift to an online business and be successful in doing so.
Then there's the situation of wage laborers who work in construction or factory workers. Construction workers don't have any employment benefits, they don't have the luxury of paid leaves or a coffee machine at the workplace. They also cannot conduct their work from home so essentially, during the lockdown they were out of a job.
Factory workers then and even now face a dilemma as to whether go to work or protect themselves from the virus. In July, the Economic Times had reported the situation of Bajirao Thengde, a factory worker who had voiced his fears about going to work after dozens of colleagues fell sick with coronavirus. However, his boss at a motorbike factory in western India said he should "learn to live with the virus". The factory was soon shut down again after multiple Coronavirus cases emerged among workers.
These are jobs that cannot be performed remotely, however, even if a job could be done at home, a lot of Indians lack internet access to do so.
The problem of lack of internet access in India
The report highlights limited internet access as the second hindrance in India's transition to WFH during the COVID 19 pandemic. Even though India has the world's second-largest number of internet users with 450 million monthly users, behind China, it only has 36 percent internet penetration. There is still much headroom for growth as per a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). Also, internet connectivity and speed vary across regions in India.
The report observed that India has minuscule chances of offering WFH roles. Here is a percentage estimate - the chances of having a WFH-friendly job in India is 19% for the top 10% income bracket and less than 1% for the bottom 10% income bracket. In other words, even for high-income jobs, the chances of switching to a remote worker are very low.
In comparison, the top 10% of earners in Brazil have an almost 60% chance of having a WFH job, and even the lowest income decile has close to a 10% chance.
The report also shows that even when 15% of jobs are home-friendly, people lack internet access to WFH. In contrast, in the richest countries, almost 37% of jobs can be performed from home and only a small percentage of workers can't work from home due to lack of internet. The report also considered farming a WFH or remote job but pointed out that all farmlands cannot be assumed to be home-based.
Overall, richer countries have an unmatched advantage over developing countries such as India. Compare this figure - in richer countries, every 1 in 3 jobs can be done from home but in poorer countries, hardly 4 out of 100 jobs are suited for WFH according to the World Bank report. There’s a stark difference in the numbers and shows how many people stand to lose out in a WFH scenario in poorer countries such as ours.
One reason to blame is poor internet access but the bigger reason is our slow economic growth. Jobs associated with information, technology, and communications increase only when economic growth rises but we're lagging in that area with a -23% growth percentage for the first quarter of FY21.
WFH affects work-life balance negatively
Yes, it's convenient and liberating to work all alone but it also means missing out on group lunches, engaging discussions, and spending time with your colleagues. Well, if you disliked them anyway and don't miss them, that's a win-win for you. But work from home poses a collective challenge for all of us - not knowing when to log out.
You must have noticed that the line between work-life and home-life is blurrier than before. Your home is now your workplace, this physical invasion of work into our homes has made it hard to distinguish one's work from one's family roles as we feel compelled to do both all the time.
People juggle household chores along with professional projects in that 9 to 5 window, even for students, their presence at home means they'll be invariably asked to chip in to help in domestic work.
US researchers Paul Glavin and Scott Schieman studied workers and found that higher levels of “role-blurring” were associated with more work-life conflicts, especially among those with high job pressure. You may feel compelled to remain available all the time. The fear of keeping the phone down or even taking a break can be anxiety-inducing for some and sometimes, cause sleepless nights.
The blurred line between work and home tends to negatively affect women more
As we're still living in a patriarchal society, where housework is expected to be done by women, this means women working overtime to balance both, office work and housework. Researchers Heejung Chung and Tanja van der Lippe in their study on Flexible Working, Work-Life Balance, and Gender Equality’ found that at-home women workers are expected to take up more domestic work than men.
In a society with traditional gender roles in families like India, this expectation could affect women's work performance or even make them consider quitting.
Employees that WFH have to bear the costs of internet and tech requirements
While traveling costs have been cut-down, we're spending more on our electricity and food bills due to working from home. Earlier, the AC costs and the WiFi bill were covered under the infrastructural cost of the company but now it weighs on your wallet.
If you work on the company's desktops, at home, you'll be forced to use your laptop which might not be that efficient. You may even have to pay to download software on your personal laptop. Some users have specialized software installed on their desktops, and it would be a daunting task to reinstall their specialized applications on laptops in a matter of days.
All of these extra costs can add up to a lot over time. It has already been almost 6 months since the work from home order was instated in most companies and the global pandemic does not appear to be receding in India so, economically, our country needs to figure out a solution before we run out of incomes.
There's no scope for collaboration and interaction in a WFH environment
Working from home can feel like a disconnected experience for people, especially for young adults that are just starting out their career. There's no one to discuss ideas with or learn from mentors and team members through observation, it's a very narrow experience working all alone.
Many Indian companies think that remote work can take a toll on collaboration, impromptu meetings, and making new connections with colleagues. "Social interaction is important for collaboration, innovation, and creativity," said Sriram of Larsen & Toubro.
This need for collaboration and group work was the reason why IBM, which had had around 40% of its staff working remotely for a decade, reversed its policy in 2017 and asked people to come into the workplace. An employee of Muthoot Finance Ltd tells SHRM that in physical meetings, "the decision-making is faster."
Sriram from Larsen & Toubro says that learning and development can suffer in a complete WFH setting. Though information can be shared via a digital medium, "learning is much more than just this kind of transmission," said Sriram. "The ability to evaluate the given knowledge and to create new knowledge and to be creative, in my view, needs a physical presence," he tells SHRM.
Remote work over a long period of time impacts camaraderie and the connection that employees have with the organization. Without interacting with the employees or being in the workspace, they may feel unmotivated to work for the organization. In those distant memories of your office days, you may miss your manager coming to your desk and making small talk or chatting on topics that have nothing to do with their job to ease your stress. This is a lot harder to do virtually.
Sheetal Sandhu from a Gurgaon-based Group CHRO for ICRA, credit ratings and research firm says, "Lack of community and cultural assimilation will be a huge problem in my view."
While her company hasn't made WFH permanent or given any updates on the future workplace, she personally favors more staff coming back to the office than not. "I would rather say 75% in office and 25% at home," she said.
However, the issues faced by individuals WFH aren't as monumental as people who've lost their livelihood due to not being able to switch to WFH jobs. A majority of jobs in India can't be shifted to the digital space and aside from the insightful study, the proof lies in front of our eyes as well. For instance, we very well realize that the gardener in our residential society or the domestic help at our homes will lose employment if not present at their workplace.