A New Workplace

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Work from home has gone mainstream as the dread of a menacing virus has shunted businesses in. The internet is replete nowadays with the pros and cons of workig remotely, of parents, kids and pets huddled around laptops and ipads as workplaces and homes merge blurring boundaries. Dining tables, couches and the ubiquotous Zoom video conferencing have speedily replaced the work stations and conference rooms at work.

While wfh is not a new concept by any means, it’s the first time it has gone mainstream albeit as an emergency response. For far too long we have been subjected to typical corporate brainwashing -about how open offices promote collaboration, of how a chance encounter at the water cooler leads to that million dollar idea and other convenient lies.

In industries like information technology where the raw material is knowledge and tech skills, it’s ironical that over collaboration and distraction filled open offices are touted as the norm. One could argue that home is hardly a distraction free workplace, yet with a little discipline and time management it can be a much more productive alternative.

Organizations are discovering that generally productivity has increased across the board as people are freed up from mindless commuting and the pressure to manage physically seperated homes and work spaces. It’s a win win in my mind for both employees and companies.

Of course the skeptics scoff and complain endlessly about the same rant of missing collaboration, going over to a colleague’s desk, face to face meetings or the managers losing control of their fiefdoms. Truth is that none of these are unsurmountable and it’s in human nature to adapt. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years now to survive.

Another interesting concept that takes an even broader view is “work from anywhere” which gives people the freedom to work from home, offices, coworking facilities, cafes, in short anywhere they want to work from. The idea is attractive but will take a while to hit critical mass. I hope it does.

There are already several companies that are thinking ahead and revisting their humongous real estate costs. Infact many have already announced plans to either go completely remote or enable a significant portion of their employees to wfh thereby reducing costs.

If we look back over the last few months everything that was once thought improbable has quickly become a reality. Interviews , hiring and onboarding have gone fully remote as have conferences, classroom trainings, leadership sessions and everything else that once required mandatory physical presence.

While its true that not every job can be performed remotely, there are a large number of others that easily can and all of us working remotely over last three months are a testimony to the fact. The question whether someone likes to wfh or office is a more personal one and not neccesarily an indicator of effectiveness of the model.

Sharing a few things that have been working for me:

  • Have a separate work area and work from the same place as far as possible
  • Manintain consistent work hours
  • Take breaks as you would at work and dont forget to hydrate, building planned breaks into your schedule is a great idea
  • Invest in a good quality chair and desk. Even outside of wfh arrangements, every home should have a distraction free area to sit and think. Believe me its a valuable investment.
  • Invest in good quality routers, mesh routers, laptops, phone stands, mouse and pads with hand rests, keyboards and monitors. Many organizations even reimburse their employees for initial setups.
  • Saving on commute time frees up the mornings which can be used for fitness – Meditate, jog, run, walk, do yoga but do use the time to get out of the house and get some fresh air. I like to combine my walks with listening to audio books and its a great way to start the day.
  • Now that you are home, mealtimes and household chores also need to be worked into the calendar. A little planning goes a long way in establishing a feeling of control.
  • Use the leisure for hobbies – writing, music, learning a new language or whatever strikes your fancy. It will keep you interested in life outside of work.
  • Last but not the least, self introspect. Maybe this time of adversity can open new doors for the future.

Life in the Times of Virus

In fact, biology is chaos. Biological systems are the product not of logic but of evolution, an inelegant process. Life does not choose the logically best design to meet a new situation. It adapts what already exists…The result, unlike the clean straight lines of logic, is often irregular, messy.” – 1918 – The Great Influenza

Last few months have been a unique experience. Like most of us, I have never experienced something like this. Almost the entire world was hustled indoors in a space of few weeks. For me it began in mid march when we were told to mandatorily work from home and most of the public places in the city were shut down.

Initially it felt like all this was an overreaction and that it would be over in a few weeks. As time progressed and we all settled down into our new normals, reality dawned that there was no getting away from nature. Every morning I would avidly follow the infection rates in my city and all over the world.

Now as we near mid June it’s still far from over. Viruses follow the SIR curve – Susceptible, Infected and Recovered – the three sectors of the population groups. It remains to be seen how long this virus continues to ravage before weakening and hopefully becoming something we can live with.

As an introvert and someone who enjoys solitude, the isolation was not particularly disturbing to me. I found myself settling into a routine of working, reading and doing household chores. In the initial months the lockdown here in India was quite stringent so even something like walking or jogging within the apartment complex was prohibited.

That was one thing I sorely missed as I like to start my mornings with going on long walks listening to an audio book. This continued for almost 2 months till early may when the rules were somewhat relaxed and we could go out with a mask.

Now in June almost everything except schools and offices is open though the numbers continue to mount. The lockdown did slow down the spread but now it appears to be galloping again which is scary.

Governments have hard decisions to make, you can’t be closing down entire nations as the economic and other logistic factors are literally unsurmountable. At the same time, opening up public places means leaving things to basically the self discipline of citizens.

Schools are particularly risky places as are workplaces. Schools and students are adjusting to the new normal of online classes which seem to be the best bet for now. Online education is here to stay though at all levels.

There’s a lot of talk about how video conferencing is not the same as in person meetings which is extremely exaggerated. It’s more of a question of adjusting than efficiency. With advances in internet bandwidths and modern communication technologies, there’s no reason why a zoom call cannot replace a meeting for which you have to travel half way across the world.

The other silver lining I see is the whole hogwash around what I call forced collaboration. Companies built this mammoth open offices with scant respect for personal space and privacy. The hot shot MBAs came up with catchy jargons like “high performance” work spaces for what was primarily a huge cost saving measure.

Quite fittingly this virus has completely decimated the insane collaboration culture. Now companies are going to the other extreme erecting plexi glass facades and forced space between workstations. Well, farces can live only for so long.

There is also a lot of talk around how this all is going to permanently alter the way we live and work. I do not subscribe to this view as I believe any change that is driven by fear is not lasting. The more likely thing to happen is that once a vaccine is available or the virus strain has sufficiently weakened or some much awaited herd immunity has kicked in people are much more likely to go back to old ways.

Change is hard and unless it comes from within its unlikely to last. I’ve read two books around contagions and found both riveting. I was stunned to find out how similar the effect of this epidemic has been despite the multitude of advances in medicine. We are as hopeless as we were in the days of the 1918 influenza.

Here are two books that I highly recommend for those who like to compulsively stay out of inane whatsapp forwards and bizarre news reporting.

The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History