One of the things the COVId-19 pandemic has done is turn the idea of the ‘office’ or work space on its head. Twitter recently announced that it would allow its employees to work from home forever. Facebook is also moving in that direction. Many other companies are following suit. Closer home TCS has said that by 2025 nearly 75% of its employees would be working from home. Both the private and public sectors are pursuing ‘work from home’ (WFH) as the future office.
The modern office originated in government, trading and religious orders that were large scale organizations requiring written records. The offices of the East India Company were one of the early starters, while this form of work space caught steam with the Industrial Revolution. From the seventeenth century onwards, new professions like finance, law, civil services and the like, found the desk the most defining aspect of their world. Overtime, cities and offices have taken over our lives. The routine of any office goer is filled with commute to and fro from work, time at one’s desk, meetings, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, and home is what remains. We have been used to spending long and our most productive hours at the office.
Sometime in 2015, I had visited the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. It had given the impression of wandering in a well-appointed mall. There were lots of food courts, restaurants, an open-air theater, saloons, music rooms, a laundry drop off point, and young people with cards hanging around their necks all around. The work place in that area was nowhere and everywhere. Apart from a few, no one had a fixed place they sat and worked. It was such an affable and bounteous environment that it made me wonder then – why would anyone need to go home. Of course, the rules provided that you could not sleep in at night!
From these abundant work spaces, we have seen the rise of work sharing companies that provide fully equipped office spaces to be rented out in a rotational manner. The office space remained primary and the focus of work life.
The pandemic has in a way made the idea of a separate work space melt away. With the help of the internet and better connectivity, most of the people found themselves working from home. In all areas of work – education, governance, business, journalism and the like. And as a result, we are now staring at a future when work space merges with the personal space called home.
A lot is being written about how WFH will change how cities function, as people will not need to commute. Location will become irrelevant when an organization is hiring, salaries might get linked to cost of living in the location of the employee. Also, real estate and other expenses of having large office complexes will go down. Maybe it is inevitable, but it is still too early to write the office off completely.
Talk to anyone working from home these days. They will tell you that they are working much longer hours than they did at office. Since they are home, the expectation is that they would be available at all hours to attend to office work. There are no breaks in a sense, and time has to be literally stolen to eat and to attend to the demands of home. Weekends too are no more sacrosanct. The blur between office and home spaces is not demarcated yet. Organizations will need to come to some kind of protocols and SOPs as they transition from office to WFH in a permanent manner.
There is also a danger that women, who have come after a long struggle into the work force will be the losers in this new paradigm. Since household and work boundaries are blurred, in patriarchal societies, when the couple works from home, the burden of housework and children will fall primarily on the women. With both working from home, when pressures rise, the woman will be mostly expected to concentrate on the household, while the man continues to concentrate on work. There is a real risk that women’s jobs may be sacrificed so that men can continue to work.
Getting dressed and going to work is like donning a different personality from the one at home. It is the time we spend as professionals in an impersonal space. It is also a place we interact and meet others face to face. No video chat can replace the energy and engagement of people together in the same room. The office space provides a sort of liberation from the intensely personal space of home. It has an allure that will be hard to overcome completely.
As the situation evolves and organizations dabble with work models, maybe we will find the perfect work-life balance both in life and in spaces.
Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 4-6-2020