A decade from now, we will probably be better able to assess the irreversible changes the pandemic wrought on us. But what is certain is that the virus has altered how we look at work and workspaces, perhaps for ever. While some are thriving in the work-from-home situation, others chafe at the forced merging of work-home boundaries and deadlines seeping into cooking hours seeping into television time...you get the drift.
There are, of course, the energy vampires who have discovered newer ways of operating — they connect over Zoom calls without an agenda, function via poor work distribution, and are more often than not, colleagues without boundaries. Which is why WFH has now even got a nickname: Living at Work.
If life has been reduced to rushing against time to meet inane deadlines, coupled with hours spent on mentally preparing a stern mail, fearing a burnout as you juggle between staying productive and trying to draw boundaries without being replaced, you’re exactly where most of us are.
This begs the question, what now? How to stay sane in the professional space? What to expect in the (near) future as far as work culture is concerned?
“As an independent PR consultant — and being my own boss with only having clients to answer to — I often don’t realise that I need to completely ‘switch-off’ from work and end up working right till I sleep. This was obviously unhealthy as I would feel tired on waking up, instead of feeling fresh. I decided this needed to change and I need to be able to control what I can. While I can’t control the pandemic or the lockdowns, I can change the feeling of feeling ‘mentally exhausted and tired,” says Ayushi Guha, a 26-year-old, adding, “Drawing healthy boundaries with a few of my clients, setting a routine, and saying no often helped. It’s important to know what’s really important and what’s not. While proactiveness is great, being bullied into overworking is not cool. Help the people you work with, your organisation and everyone that you can, but remember to also take care of yourself in order to be able to serve others through your work and relationships.”
Working from home also means confronting remotely. And this can get both awkward and tough. But, mustering up the courage to voice your challenges to a trusted source is the only way out, suggest experts. “The first is to assess your boundaries and identify what you’re comfortable with. Second, communicate assertively — not aggressively and not passively. One has to express their needs effectively; whether or not it gets fulfilled is a different story, but our job is to ask. Third, if one is a boss, one needs to adapt to the pandemic’s impact on the team’s mental state, reduced competence and not burden them with the fear of unemployment,” says Arushi Sana, founder of an online news portal, who urges young working adults to etch out a schedule that’s not perfect, but feasible enough to be effective in alleviating stress levels. “I took time to build a balance that works for me and fit things into my routine. It’s okay to not have a perfect balance, but one must be close to having it.”
Expressing a similar view, Sumit Rai, founder of an educational consultancy, believes assertiveness and proactiveness go a long way. “For anything and everything which does not fall under your work purview or if the work is assigned after regular office hours, you can raise your hand and say NO. A one-off deadline is still okay, but if you allow yourself to be exploited, you will be. The boundaries need to be set right at the beginning of your work or new job, in order to keep the expectations right. Of course, this acquires an entirely new dimension for freshers, but as an individual, you ought to choose what is right for you and how much learning you want from your current job.”
Finding a balance
“The best way to manage work-life balance is to learn to be friendly with the people you’ve been working with. Trust me, when you do it, everything becomes that much easier. Yes, the pandemic has been difficult. But it has also given us a chance to reexamine our relationships, including those at work and be a best version of ourselves,” says Satyam Shastri, co-founder of a social media start-up. That aside, having a work structure in place helps. “Have a dedicated time to work so that important work can be done in that time period. You also have to factor in some extra hours for that extra work that will inevitably turn up. As life and work merge, we need to figure out ways to stay on top of things.”
Suhas Vahini Reddy, founder of an e-commerce service, believes sane work communication depends on speaking up at the right time. “First be sure if saying ‘no’ is the only option left. And if so, convey it at the earliest. It is not just about the right time though; it is about the right way and the right thing to say no to.”
Win some lose some
As the world acquaints itself to an entirely remote way of being and largely functioning digitally for longer than ever imagined, the transition to back to working at offices appears to be a distant reality. While it’s too early to stick to just one avenue, chances are, workspaces post the pandemic era will witness a paradigm shift — a hybrid way of work could be the way forward. And, it could be a win-win for everyone with a little tweaking.
“For most industries, I think a work-from-home structure is here to stay, but I foresee a hybrid model being formed — one which allows employees the flexibility to work remotely, but incorporates some in-office presence,” opines Nastassja Suri, co-founder of an indoor cycling enterprise, who further opines that restricting is the way forward. “The lockdowns have shown us that work from home can work, however we’ve also been reminded of the importance of, and need for, social interaction. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in open-floor offices, where the focus has moved from individual cabins to collaborative workspaces. A hybrid model allows for the best of both worlds, economically,” she enthuses.
Given how there’s no way to tell whether things would ever get back to normalcy, a volley of entrepreneurs believe the WFH era — provided boundaries are set — can be the start of a much healthier life. In hindsight, the pandemic work culture will also see a difference with employees feeling more productive considering the time off work they have been able to get, whether it’s working from home or just taking a break.
“I think we are most likely going to shift to a hybrid model of work from home plus work from office. The pandemic has really disrupted and challenged so many of our ideas that we will have to re-think, re-structure and set up new ways to live and work together,” opines Mitali Tandon, founder-entrepreneur, adding, “Like most firms, we are thinking about different ways to measure productivity and keeping teams connected, while staying growth focused. The pros of the pandemic is that it’s reminded us that taking a little time off/slowing things down sometimes is good, and a well-planned WFH schedule permits that. The cons are largely psychological. Everyone misses the energy of working together, collaborating, connecting and sharing with one another. For me, personally, a hybrid option of working from home a few days and going into the office the next few, would be ideal.”
Thinking along similar lines, Sumit Rai believes the lockdown phase has changed the perspective of a stay-at-home lifestyle, “It has been really a mixed feeling concerning work-life balance since the past one year. On the one hand, this pandemic gave us the opportunity to spend quality time with our family, while on the other hand, it made you work twice with lots of household chores and office priorities getting mixed. The challenge was to check on the various priorities, including kids and then learn multi-tasking. I believe, this pandemic has made many Indian men realise the efforts women take to run and manage the family and keep everyone happy. For me, it has been a great learning experience, juggling between different official tasks and household matters. This realisation surely helps one respect and acknowledge a homemaker’s efforts a lot more than before.”
A post-pandemic shift?
“My perspective on a post-pandemic work culture is that people have learnt to give themselves the necessary break that the body and mind needs, which will drive and motivate many individuals to perform better at their jobs. Also, people like us in leadership positions from various organisations have suffered the negative effects of the pandemic. The virus has shown us the importance of taking care of our staff and work-family. I am definitely of the belief that the post-pandemic work culture will have a lot of benefits for employers as they will see employees giving it their best. This is also partly because most of us have had the time to slow down, appreciate what we have got and be grateful for it,” says Sakina Ahmed, founder of a Bengaluru-based fashion boutique.