By Dinesh Mohan
In many countries strict lockdowns have been imposed since March which has made it impossible for many to go to work. Over this period many of us have learned how to use meeting software to start working from home. And, many of us have found it quite convenient for the time being. Many policymakers are suggesting that we should learn from this experience and make working from home (WFH) a norm post COVID19. According to McKinsey & Company, “Over time, some organizations could reduce their real-estate costs by 30 percent. Those that shift to a fully virtual model could almost eliminate them. Both could also increase their organisational resilience and reduce their level of risk by having employees work in many different locations” (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/reimagining-the-office-and-work-life-after-covid-19).
Many others think that this pandemic is an opportunity to change our living habits and commuting patterns to keep traffic volume low to reduce pollution, remove congestion on our roads and make cleaner air possible. All those promoting walking, bicycling, and use of public transport suddenly see an opportunity to promote their agenda. While we mull over all these ideas, it would be wise to remember that the outcomes of disasters and tragedies can take very unpredictable forms. What happens in the future will be decided by the background conditions prevailing before the lockdown and the social and economic effects of the lockdown itself.
Before we even consider the possibilities of WFH and possible benefits on travel and the environment, we have to examine the reasons why most of us should not stay at home all day. Though not admitted in public discourse, a majority of nuclear families around the world are reasonably dysfunctional. Exact statistics are not available but many studies show that a large proportion of children do not get along with at least one of their parents. Then there is the problem of husband-wife relationships and that of in-laws sharing living space. If this were not so more than a third of the marriages would not end in divorce wherever women have the possibility of being independent. Many people have found WFH tolerable only because of the perception that it is temporary in time.
Over the past 500,000 years of human existence, people have spent most of their wakeful hours outside the home. Through evolution human beings have developed into social animals and so most of us, except loners by nature, have to spend time away from the family to keep our sanity. This is especially true for those who do not have homes where everyone can operate independently in different rooms. The fact that families cooped up together for long periods of time will develop serious problems is quite well known.
A WHO multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women reports that globally, women in non-conflict settings are at greatest risk of violence from their husband or intimate partner, rather than from strangers or others known to them and in most sites between 20% and 33% of women reported being abused by their partner in the past year. A WHO website also informs us that “Whilst data are scarce, reports from across the world, including China, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and other countries suggest a significant increase in domestic violence cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic”. The WHO has also released a Joint Leaders’ statement – Violence against children: A hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. It states “Movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and observe physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home—it is also increasing their exposure to cyberbullying, risky online behaviour and sexual exploitation”. If isolation at home can be bad for children and women, it couldn’t be too good for men either!
It is not clear at all if WFH will reduce traffic or pollution under normal conditions as long as the present socio-economic philosophies remain in place. Studies done by transportation experts do not give any clear indications about this issue. Many suggest that doing fewer work trips will lead to additional non-work trips. A person making fewer (or no) work trips because she is working from home is likely to spend additional time on other trips, such as going to a grocery store that is further away or fitting in an additional trip to meet with a friend. A large number of people working individually at home could also encourage more delivery trips for supplies and food. It is also suggested that WFH may encourage more people to live in the suburbs and promote urban sprawl. By staying at home more power may get used per person because of lower densities as compared to shared offices. Therefore, at present we do not have any evidence that WFH would result in less traffic, congestion or pollution during normal times.
In India, there is a great deal of formal and informal employment also associated with office spaces. Formal employment incudes those running taxi and public transport services, security, maintenance and cleaning and canteen staff. Informal workers include a host of those supplying tea, snacks, stationary, furniture, and street vendors and hawkers outside. For many, the office environment is also a place where you make friends and discuss life problems, and even find life partners. For many others in India, the office space is a much more comfortable place to be than their homes.
For women, going to work also gives them opportunity to get away from oppression at home. Shilpa Phadke (Professor at the Tata Institute of SocialSciences, Mumbai) claims that as much as women are pushed back into the private spaces of the home, they have to push back in subversive and confrontation always, protesting and claiming space with their bodies and when out. This allows women to claim spaces—public, private and digital—in a variety of ways. According to Jane Jacobs just being on the street on the way to work allows people “stopping by a the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the news stand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded”.
Recent reports in the papers from all over the world suggest that many of those WFH are more stressed and working much longer periods than when at the office physically. This suggests that many employers may find it much easier to go back to worker exploitation systems of the 19th century. No eight-hour day, no overtime, no need to provide a subsidised canteen or a comfortable workspace. Nicholas Bloom a professor at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks that productivity may suffer too: “Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster. My 4-year-old regularly bursts into the room hoping to find me in a playful mood shouting “doodoo!”—her nickname for me— in the middle of conference calls…I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth… The answer is social company. They reported feeling isolated, lonely and depressed at home. So, I fear an extended period of working from home will not only kill office productivity but is building a mental health crisis.”
It is quite clear to me that we should prepare for WHF very carefully. It should be resorted to only when the employee feels comfortable with it and for those odd days when it becomes necessary for workers disabled from attending to work for some reason. WHF should not be used as an excuse for solving all our other problems. There are many other ways for dealing with those issues.
—The writer is Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and works on transportation and safety issues
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