One cannot say that everyone can work from home, nor can all work be done from home
In March 2017, when Prof Robert Kelly, an associate professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, was doing a live interview from his home through video chat on BBC discussing the impeachment of South Korean president his toddler daughter and infant son suddenly entered the room one after the other. Kelly tried to maintain his composure, while his wife came running in to grab the children. Soon the video went viral.
That was 2017 and working from home was not the norm.
Three years later, Kelly was live again for an interview with BBC News, and like in 2017, Kelly’s young children once again made an appearance. But this time it did not create as much of a ripple as half the world is working from home due to the threat of Covid-19. Kelly, too, was discussing working from home due to the coronavirus global pandemic.
“Yeah, I mean it’s pretty tough for us as you can see,” Kelly said in the video as he and his wife Kim Jung-A fought to keep their children under control in their residence in South Korea. “It’s pretty difficult and I put this on Twitter too, that employers who have employees with kids like ours, it’s been very, very difficult,” Kelly added.
For the past five months, like most countries in the world, Pakistan has been under some sort of lockdown and many people have been working from home. As the lockdown here has eased and businesses are slowly opening with people being asked to attend office in person, there are mixed feelings and views on whether work from home is good or not. Some are looking forward to going back to the previous routines, while some would prefer to continue working from home.
All have their reasons. While before the lockdown some didn’t know such an option existed, now that they have experienced the advantages they want to continue working from home. On the other hand some have had bad experiences and want a reversal of the situation.
Sajid thinks that working from home is a good development. Earlier, he had to travel for more than an hour in the morning and again in the evening to and from his office. “If I am allowed to work from home, I save on commuting time and cost of fuel. Imagine the amount of fuel I had been burning,” says Sajid, who lives in Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar, and works at an office on Chundrigar Road. “Certain tasks require one to be at the office but this does not need to be a daily thing. One can attend to these when needed.”
He seems to have a point. Less traffic, less carbon emissions; good for the environment, he says. “And less stress and fewer visits to doctors,” he adds light-heartedly.
Sajid may have a point but Farah, a mother of three, who is presently working from home, finds it difficult although she is not required to follow strict timings at her office. Her two sons, too, are working from home yet she complains of distractions at home. “When children know I am at home they tend to call for me for everything instead of the maid or the house help,” she says. “Even the domestic staff, who work independently when I am at office, now run to me for everything. It becomes annoying and disturbing. I am waiting for the lockdown to end so I can go to the office and do my work with full concentration.”
Ambreen, who works for a large media house, thinks that work from home is not for a woman, especially if she is a mother and lives in a joint family. “Since everybody is at home I have to take care not just of their needs but also their moods,” says Ambreen.
Preparing meals wouldn’t be as difficult if the maids were coming, but since “due to lockdown the maids are not coming you have to be a maid yourself. We are juggling between fulfilling our professional responsibilities and doing household chores.”
Ambreen does not have a structured routine for office and does find time for family and housework but wonders how those who have to be present online from 9am to 5pm or in case of a teacher from 9am to 2pm manage to do their work. “Since I do not have a structured routine, I end up giving all the time to the family, and only when everybody goes to sleep at night do I get enough peace of mind to sit down and do my office work,” she says. “Sometimes I sit down to do my work during the day, but in the midst of it I am called to attend to some domestic chore and when I come back after two hours I feel lost and don’t know where I was and have to start all over again.”
Some people complain but do not accept change; they would stick to age-old routines without realising the benefits of the alternative that is offered to them.
Working from home is creating problems not only for working women but also for home-makers. “Even for women who are not working, it has become difficult because the maids are not coming and husbands and children are home all the time,” says Ambreen.
Ghazala, herself a housewife, believes that mothers should work from home as in between work they can keep an eye on the children, who too are at home all day long, but men should go to the offices as when they are home they make a fuss about everything and hinder household chores by asking for tea or snacks at random hours. “Women are already juggling home and work and these interruptions are welcome,” she says.
While most women find it difficult to work from home, Aqsa thinks it is easier to manage both home and work when one is at home. “As far as housework is concerned we also do it when we go to office,” she says. “One has to organise things and divide one’s time accordingly. In fact, we can give more time to the home as we save time on commuting and getting dressed for work. If one does not have a video meeting one can work even in one’s pyjamas.” However, she says that the other members of the family, especially men, should understand that while women are at home they cannot give all their time to household work.
Mehmood strongly believes in working from home. However, he acknowledges that circumstances vary and that it also depends on the nature of work. “If one’s job involves a lot of paperwork, then it is better to be present in the office as transporting and passing over all the files can create problems. But if work can be done online, there is no need to waste time on travel to and from office and burn unnecessary fuel,” he says. “I would prefer to work from home even after the Covid-19 scare is over if my office allows us. The management can monitor our work and timings, though I believe it is important to finish the work in time and be available when needed rather than be clocked in all the time but not finish the work.”
Absence of a proper work environment can be a problem. Both Mehmood and Ambreen agree that not everyone has a proper office environment at home, but “if one is serious about work one can find a secluded corner where one can work. It may be more difficult for women, especially with young children, but it can be managed,” says Mehmood.
“We are used to sitting in an air-conditioned environment with proper office setting but at home we do not have that sort of set up where you are sitting straight, alert and the computer is in the right position, and you work efficiently,” says Ambreen.
What about those who don’t have a laptop or a computer at home? Mehmood says that it will be a problem for them. During the lockdown, his office provided all such people with a laptop and Wi-Fi connection so they could work from the confines of their homes. “I know that all managements are not as worker-friendly as at my office, but the employers should consider the employees’ convenience and provide them facilities, especially when it is going to affect their performance and outcome,” says Mehmood.
While there are people like Mehmood and Sajid who would prefer to work from home even after the lockdown, there are people like Akbar who, despite being allowed to work from home, continued to go to office every day. “I just cannot work from home,” he would tell everyone who was willing to listen. His colleagues were surprised as he lives alone and so shouldn’t have had any problem with being distracted. Before the lockdown, he too used to complain about having to drive a long distance on a daily basis, traffic jams and fuel cost. “It’s a matter of habit,” one of his colleagues remarks. “Since all other avenues of going out were closed, it was his only chance to get out of home.”
Whatever option one may prefer or whatever reason one may cite, in most cases it is a matter of mindset. This is best illustrated in the case of Akbar. Some people complain but do not accept change; they would stick to age-old routines without realising the benefits of the alternative on offer. At the same time one cannot say that everyone can work from home, nor can all work be done from home.
The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz