Work From Home, a.k.a. WFH. To every Mumbaikar who endures long commutes, frustrates in traffic snarls, battles summer heat and monsoon chaos, and arrives not-so-fresh at work, the prospect was a Godsend. Things kicked off with a mix of confusion and euphoria but soon went sideways when expectations didn’t quite live up to reality.
If you’re working from home, chuckling at memes, griping on phone conversations with colleagues and watching WFH fiascos on YouTube, welcome to the Mumbai that works from home. Feel free to step into the shoes of Mumbai’s freshly minted virtual workforce. You’ve likely been in these shoes yourself.
Roller coaster ride, and a missing girl
Suvarnlata, Assistant Manager with a multinational IT major
In her own words, “working from home is a roller-coaster ride with highs, lows and lots of twists”. The story begins with Suvarna’s (she prefers being called thus) employer announcing WFH protocols in late March. The first hurdle that she and her co-managers overcame was helping mobilise their project team mates, all 170 of them, to get online. In three days!
Suvarna explains, “The process involved remotely getting individual approvals for all 170 people through a chain of command, having those people visit office for paperwork, collect the respective computers (each task was done in a different building) and take them home safely. It was very tough, but paid off because I was one of the few to recently receive an award for excellence in managing the mobilisation”. The things people did working from home? And you thought working from home is only about a computer and internet!
Team morale was top and the chance for quality time at home was exciting. As for Suvarna, she was happy to save commute time, get temporary riddance from outlaws encountered on the drive to and from work, try out new recipes, drink lots of homemade coffee and revive her dead exercise regimen. That explains the earlier reference to ‘euphoria’? Except, Ms Asst. Manager was about to live the life of an ‘expectations vs reality’ meme.
“My life revolved around complaints by team mates about power outages and slow or no internet, absenteeism, migrant co-workers migrating back to their hometown, and everybody adapting to new WFH systems and process leaving little time for productive work”—all the ingredients of a slow-cooked recipe for chaos.
Suvarna’s work and people management challenges scaled new levels, and through it all she kept falling (literally off her faulty chair, more than once), losing hair, gaining weight and learning anew. Her delivery timelines introduced a new variable: power outage, because zero electricity accounted for dozens of lost work hours and left workers praying to the God of electricity to save gasping laptop batteries.
As the early chaos settled, a twist in the WFH tale was coming. One morning in early August, a colleague—migrant, single female, alone in a leased apartment in Navi Mumbai—was missing from the virtual ‘daily standup’ (tech. industry jargon for briefing) without notice. “Her phone was unreachable and dozens of emails and texts from us went unanswered. I was worried sick, hoping she was safe. At 4.30 pm, she finally called.” Apparently, missing girl’s laptop and smartphone were dead after a nearly 16-hour power line fault in her neighbourhood. But she was safe and sound. The God of electricity had answered a different kind of prayer.
In time, work from home has become the new normal. In these parting words, Suvarna said, “things changed after two months and the team together achieved targets that would be impossible working from office.
What hasn’t changed is the time I’m online. It’s still more than I’d like.”
Teaching the teacher
Preeti, Pre-Primary Coordinator with a leading private school in Navi Mumbai
At 55, Preeti is a teacher, mother, granny and working mom who neatly balanced work and home for three decades. Until technology came knocking and almost knocked her out. Preeti manages a group of 16-17 pre-primary teachers, takes over a class in case of a rare staff shortage, and runs the show like a boss. When doing her job remotely, however, Preeti has none of the tools that made her boss in the first place. “No blackboard, no classrooms, no teachers to guide and mentor, and no 4-year-olds to teach. Only apps I never heard of, leave alone using them. What to do?”, quips the veteran who can afford to smile about her troubles in hindsight.
Preeti was overcome by self-doubt from her perceived lack of control over proceedings mostly due to the lack of working knowledge of any technology beyond a smartphone. Her struggles were about to begin, but so was the help to overcome them. A supportive management and peer teachers egged her on, and her tech-savvy son took it upon himself to teach the teacher.
With her son by her side, the veteran teacher took baby steps to the other side of the digital divide, slowly matching the tech prowess of teachers half her age. Soon, Preeti was joining on Microsoft Teams, taking classes and conducting meetings on Zoom and managing her troops virtually. She did not ace every test, like the times she faltered when asked to present the screen, join a Teams channel or do something she wasn’t trained for. “I would be nervous and look to my son for help.” He helped, waiting patiently out of the web cam’s sight, stepping in to save the day. There was one problem, though. “I didn’t know how I will manage when my son go back office in some days.” Preeti spent worrying days and tense nights getting nightmares about clicking the wrong button and turning on the camera at the wrong time.
the veteran teacher took baby steps to the other side of the digital divide, slowly matching the tech prowess of teachers half her age
Her son admits, “If mom was told three months ago that she’d be using apps to do school work, I’m sure her reply would be ‘no; never’. But, starting from zero and making herself capable of using all this technology is a huge achievement at her age.” I agree!
Preeti’s is the story of countless teachers in India who, in the backdrop of the pandemic, endure a daily struggle in crossing a digital divide that threatens to outmode them. Many started out digitally challenged but aced the test, helping get the nation’s academic present back on the rails, one virtual class at a time.
Liar, liar, you’re fired
Rohan, Senior Operations Manager with an Indian bank
“The first few weeks I twiddled my thumbs. Then, I was worrying about my job because the company was laying off people at the time.” These words encapsulate Rohan’s earliest memories of working from home.
Rohan is one of the supervisors for a vendor that supports his bank’s work. Made up mostly of young professionals and students, the vendor’s team was given an app specifically to help them work from home. “Initially, it was difficult getting some of these youngsters to fall in line. Every day I was dealing with genuine and made up excuses: app has a bug, no electricity, no internet, I’m sick, family member’s sick…” Rohan used patience and the odd firm hand to deal with his somewhat wayward workforce up until one of them made an excuse he would regret for the remainder of his life.
“It happened we reopened office with 30% staff. We would immediately send back a sick employee. When one of them tested positive for COVID, we shut the entire facility for a week. Two weeks later, a cheeky fellow made a plan to benefit from the situation, but his plan had holes. He reported sick, and two days later called office saying, ‘Mujha corona hua hai’.”
“I guess he wanted to enjoy two weeks of paid leave (laughs). What better than this time to pull it off? After the first case, the bank put more safety procedures in place and the office would be sanitised and shut for a shorter duration if we had a positive case.” The sordid saga continues, “He called HR about 20 days later, saying he was ready to return to office. HR asked him to bring medical papers and certificates so we know it’s safe for him and others to be in office. After re-joining office, he kept making excuses for not bringing COVID test results. HR suspected foul play and discovered that he made up the whole story.” Bad story, mate.
“The company lost business worth lakhs and 800-900 people were affected by the closure just because one person lied.” What happened to the culprit, I ask? “He was terminated and warned of being blacklisted by the bank, which means he won’t find a job in the banking sector.”
Moral of the story—there are people who lost jobs, and there are those who lied their way out of one.
From achieving 10% expectations to being an example
Monika, Customer Relationship Manager with an insurance company
“Ghar baithe insurance kaise bechoon?” (How do I sell insurance from home?), is the first thing that occurred to Monika on being instructed to work from home. The answer wasn’t far. Before the lockdown, Monika worked from branches of a leading Indian bank tied up with her insurance company. Her work largely depended on finding potential insurance customers through personal interaction with branch staff, and face time with such customers at the branch or a place of their choosing to buy an insurance policy.
Her baby girl was eight months when the first lockdown was announced. In the absence of her househelp, managing home and work while caring for the infant was stressful enough. The constant demand to meet tough targets aggravated the situation. Monika wondered anxiously, “How do I get leads, find prospects, how to manage baby and help at home… So many questions without answers. I met only 10% of my expectations.”
Clearly, working from home was not working for this insurance agent. Monika’s manager advised her to operate from the branch if working remotely was not helping. At a time when her colleagues were working from home and the chances of coming home infected to her family and child outweighed the gains of returning to her workplace.
“I continued with the dilemma of home or office for 10-15 days. I wanted to keep my job so I thought I’ll try working from the branch.” The next few days Monika worked from the branch and discovered it was good to check her stress and good for business as well. “There was renewed interest in insurance. Customers wanted to get insured in this uncertain time. They also sought products with COVID coverage. It was good for me and good for the people I insured. It was a small step, but it felt like I was helping in my own small way. My bosses were happy and proud to see me working from the branch. So proud that they cited me as an example of bravery and professionalism, hoping to motivate others to get back to office.”
1.5 times work = 30% less pay
Puneet (name changed), Senior Associate with a multinational BPO
“When I met a relative two weeks ago, he immediately asked about the dark circles under my eyes. I told him they were due to working 12-13 hours daily. You see, people from other sectors think it’s easy for us IT folks to work from home. ‘Bas ek laptop aur internet chahiye.’ (All you need is a laptop and internet).”
“What they don’t know is the expectations of our management and clients changed during the pandemic. They expect more productive hours because we are not commuting long distances and so on. I used to work 9 to 6 and come home to eat and rest during lunch break as my office is nearby. Now I regularly work till 10 pm or later,” rues the 30-something.
Puneet is correct in part. Many IT workers say they are spending more time working from home than they did working from office. This, despite honest efforts by employers to alleviate their troubles. “We haven’t used company resources for months, so that should save them costs. Still, almost everybody took a 30% pay cut.”
“No one has the guts to question the management about the extra work we’re doing for less pay, because jobs are at stake.”
Puneet is a speck in the IT industry that is beginning to feel the heat of the pandemic that has made the present shaky and the future uncertain. IT giant Accenture announced a 5% layoff globally. Thousands of jobs could be cut in India before the end of 2020. It’s the same story across industries, entrepreneurs and small businesses. India Inc. has taken a hit; some harder than others.
Let me also tell you about the accountant from Nalasopara, who in the absence of Western Railway locals, travels by road to his Nariman Point office, three hours to and three hours from!
Suvarna the manager, Preeti the teacher, Rohan the supervisor, Monika the insurance agent, Puneet the engineer and the unnamed accountant are symbols of the ‘down but not out’ working-class Mumbaikar—running out of options, not hope.