The Dark Side of Work From Home

Working from Home is not all bliss.

TL;DR: Time-gaps extracted from the pre-pandemic eras shall not be forced (directly and/or indirectly) by the organizations to be allocated for work. They should encourage employees to fill such gaps to compensate for the social relationships the employees have lost. Also, it should be realized that the responsibility of coping up with the pandemic falls into both parties: employees and employers by employing practical methodologies.

Pre-pandemic work was significantly different than the workplaces right now. Quite a lot of work was done in an office, under the hierarchies of both social and managerial. That is, people followed agreed-upon conventions to carry on their work professionally using the hierarchies provided by the corporate rule-books, and socially using the hierarchies provided by workplace culture(s). The pandemic has managed to alter some aspects of this convention, and ultimately change how people spend their day-to-day routines.

Before the work-from-home (WFH) era came into prominence (here I’m exempting the organizations which already had sophisticated WFH/Hybrid cultures), people had already established their own routines in their day-to-day lives. I, for one, got up at 5–5:30AM, and I used to read until 6–6:30AM. I left home roughly about 7AM, and arrive at work at 9AM (it was a hectic ride, with Sri Lankan buses constantly throwing you revolting songs). I finish work roughly at 7PM (usually earlier than that), and arrive at home at about 8PM, and that’s all it with work. The pandemic has changed all that: and a lot for the better. There are no hectic bus rides, no sweaty walks with the scorching sun above you, not to mention the cost-savings for all the transportation and the like. If you are an introvert you most likely felt incredibly delighted when WFH was announced at your organization. WFH means you have to physically interact less with your peers (and superiors), you can dive into your own thoughts a bit more and hone in on your natural strengths that you have which may sometimes not be possible in midst of a crowded workplace. So we all thought that this WFH was one of the best thing that has ever happened to our working selves.

WFH from the Employers’ Eye

If you’re an employer, WFH means that you can cut down the costs (or lessen the costs) for the premises and utilities. For example, you don’t have to run the air conditioners all-day, and you don’t have to incur the costs for snacks and beverages. There, cumulatively you’ll be cutting down a significant portion of the monthly cost. But that’s not to say that you may have expanded your profits, though. The pandemic hit hard on certain parts of the world, and hence certain parts of the industry. Titans of certain industries had to close down some of their facilities, and some of them had to close down their entire lines of work. If you work in an industry like travel, you may have felt the full wrath of the pandemic, since a major portion of travel was curtailed due to social distancing measures. Even if you were not affected directly by the pandemic, chances are there might have been indirect consequences of it affecting your organizational resources and therefore net revenue.

Some industries were able to lift their heads up due to the unwavering commitment and dedication of their employees. Even in midst of the pandemic, even if they knew that the organizations had to cut down the salaries just prevent lay-offs, the employees work with tremendous courage to lift the spirits up and keep it from going down under. If you’re an organization blessed with such employee strength, that set of employees is the most valuable asset that you may ever have, despite how much profit you gain in the future. It’s your responsibility to protect such a resource.

The Downsides

Unwavering commitment and dedication of the employees comes at a huge cost from their end. They, throughout the pandemic, had to live with imbalanced lifestyles in terms of work-and-life. The established routines in the pre-pandemic eras were shattered keeping their workplaces in-tact. Here’s an excerpt from the Working Paper Series (2020, Vol 3, Sp. Issue 2) from Prude University:

“Even more jarringly, our pleasure-inducing, routine-establishing life-chores have become tainted by a morbid, anxiety-inducing tonality: shopping for groceries has turned into a nerve-racking, fate-tempting expedition; the erstwhile end-of-day joy of spending time with one’s child(ren) feels substantially less blissful now that the entire day is constituted by Olympiad-level acrobatics, as we manage their needs with our own professional commitments. [….] And, all the non- domestic pleasures of our lives — coffee shops work-sessions, drinks at a bar with friends, browsing in bookshops, movie theatre outings, gym workouts, impromptu chats with neighbors have, in one fell sweep, ceased to be on offer as rehabilitative rituals that punctuated our work- life. In fact, the pandemic has had a tragically individualizing effect on our lives; as our social circles have shrunk, our reliance on the insularity of normative family structures and/or primary romantic-marital partners has become, if it were possible, even more entrenched.”

In HealthConf 2020, a paper (addressing the particular issue in question in Sri Lanka) addressed the following sentence:

In the aspect of work life balance, 45.7% stated that they are mentally unstable due to higher workload given by the employer … and 53.4% stated that it is harder to work from home than visiting the workplace. Majority 49% stated that level of individual stress has increased due to monotone of the lifestyle.

Physical contact was inevitably curtailed, and hence socialising was limited to almost zero. No outdoor events and no social gatherings. Just a bunch of people secluded in their own circles nevertheless having the capability of doing work. The space employees had for work expanded due to limited social relationships, which they had plenty in pre-pandemic times, and the employers got the utmost chances of exploiting such spaces and fill them with work. Things we held deeply personal and enjoyable were turned into professional endeavors by a whim. The routinely lifestyles were shattered and replaced with other routines — ones which were increasingly professional and less social. Hundreds of weekly “life-hacks” and Yoga classes were put forth as saviors for “healing” such circumstances, whose fundamental logic is depicted in the Working Paper Series as “a logic grounded in the belief that each one of us is singularly responsible for our survival and success, never mind the truth of just how asymmetrical or inequitable these processes are”. The organizations gradually but cunningly shifted away from being who should be taking care of the employee groups to a set of people who are consuming from them. It all started by filling the employees’ personal gaps — which they were allowed to have in the pre-pandemic eras — with work.

It’s all in Human Nature

Humans are social animals. From the hunter-gatherer ages, humans have been forming social structures that grew into large civilizations. Artefacts formed through these social structures — languages, social hierarchies and imagined myths — are pillars which keep such a large population in unison. Agricultural and industrial revolutions made such civilizations evolve into the modern-day world. Even though such evolutions made progress in our surroundings, it seems as if we are vehicles being driven in a vastly different environment we’ve been built to function in.

When atmospheres change, the one who triumphs is the one who adapts. The quicker you adapt, faster you win. But how does a person change? Is it an individual effort? Quite the contrary. It requires a properly built up vision reflected by the culture of an organization to help people adopt to such circumstances. This is not to say that the sole responsibility of change falls into the hands of the organizations, but it emphasizes that the companies have got a hand in it as well. A circle of safety can only be built by a trusting culture which promotes self growth by co-operation instead of competition within. A single person acting alone trying to mitigate problems cannot form a circle — it requires a group. Distancing people from such group cultures increases stress — both in workplace and personal lives. An act of detaching the social bonds once formed, returns an atmosphere that goes against the very nature humans were made to live in.

Conclusion

In these mid-pandemic eras, social detachment is inevitable. Such intimate bonds people had formed were shattered into pieces. However, what’s most important about this is that people have not yet lost all of their social relationships. WFH has the capability of bringing family members (and family friends) closer to the people who were once distanced due to work. Time saved from traveling et cetera can be used to spend more time with friends and family close by. It’s the one gain we have personally in terms of our relationships due to pandemic. Filling those very gaps of time that we have gained with work is the most bestial act that can be bestowed upon people in a socially-curtailed time period. Practical measures need to be taken to compensate companies’ most valuable assets, to cure the imbalanced working lifestyles of the employees trapped in a room.

Software Engineer, CSE Graduate @ University of Moratuwa