When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world early last year, the corporate world discovered a new golden rule –
One US study found the length of working days increased by 8.2% during lockdown. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA
work from home.
It created a new class division, separating those who had to report to work – driving a vehicle, fixing a leaking pipe or tending a patient from home isn’t possible – and those who could use a computer or even their phones to get connected to their offices and clients. It reduced the risk of contamination considerably and cut out the stress and time wastage of travelling to work.
More than a year later, though, the gloss has worn off the work from home mindset. According to a recent study from Microsoft, almost two-thirds of the more than 31,000 full-time employed or self-employed workers interviewed across 31 markets said that they were “craving” more in-person time with their teams and 37% of the global workforce complained that their companies were “asking too much of them” when out of the office.
That latter part is a very valid but conveniently overlooked point. While no data from similar studies are available in Sri Lanka, many people I have talked to spoke of heavier workloads. They also said that office hours being seamless was highly stressful as their superiors could access them any time of day.
These added stresses worked against the advantages gained by the slashing of commuting time, and the ability to lie on one’s bed and work. One young medical researcher working for an American company, working from home since April 2020, said he was required to work 12-hour shifts four days a week. He began suffering from chronic fatigue, weaker eyesight and is extremely worried about his health. A basketball player, he was no longer getting any exercise as he was simply too exhausted to work after practices (because of the time difference, he works night shifts, and added that he was ready to settle for a lower paying administrative staff position at a private hospital rather than continue with this company.
"After one year, people have learned to live with Covid-19. That they are often careless in public and disregard the rules is a sign of increasing detachment from the reality. People no longer believe that the real danger comes from the virus. They believe it’s from the already unbearable cost of living, loss of livelihoods and the inability to plan anything for the future. Surviving each day has become a precarious business for many"
According to the Microsoft study, About 54% of these workers feel overworked and 39% are simply exhausted. Thanks to these new working from home arrangements, meetings are significantly longer, “chats” have risen 45% and 41million more emails were sent in one month alone (February 2021) compared with the same month last year.
While older workers and bosses seem to be handling things in stride (61% of them say they are “thriving” right now, which is 23% points higher than those without decision-making authority), the younger employees aged between 18 and 25 are struggling to balance work with life and are more exhausted.
Innovation, the mantra of contemporary industry and business, has suffered, too. According to Dr. Nancy Baym, senior principal researcher at Microsoft: “When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and group think becomes a serious possibility.”
All of this is taking its toll on workers and big companies are starting to take notice. Recently, LinkedIn stated that it was giving its employees a paid week off to deal with the stresses that they have been enduring while working from home. The Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon, said recently that working from home is an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.
But the pandemic has its own unpredictable dynamic. It’s not changing course in tune to the alarm bells of the corporate world.
At the dawn of 2021, there was a surge of hope as the vaccine roll out began. It looked as if Covid-19 would be checked within a matter of months. Now in mid-April, the picture is still scary. The pandemic is still raging in many parts of the world, infections and death rates are still high. In other words, no country hit by the pandemic has been able to declare the situation under control. Even exceptions in the democratic world, such as New Zealand, have had individual cases reported again. China has things under control only with the most draconian measures imaginable.
"In mid-April every year, for example, Colombo becomes a ghost city as the traditional Sinhalese-Tamil new year dawns. This time, the empty streets and closed shop fronts have a pandemic feel to them, haunting us with memories of the last lockdown, reinforcing fears of a third wave of infections"
In this context, everything begins to have a pandemic look. In mid-April every year, for example, Colombo becomes a ghost city as the traditional Sinhalese-Tamil new year dawns. This time, the empty streets and closed shop fronts have a pandemic feel to them, haunting us with memories of the last lockdown, reinforcing fears of a third wave of infections. That the death rate is quite low compared to some countries does not pacify those inner fears that gnaw at people. After one year, people have learned to live with Covid-19. That they are often careless in public and disregard the rules is a sign of increasing detachment from the reality. People no longer believe that the real danger comes from the virus. They believe it’s from the already unbearable cost of living, loss of livelihoods and the inability to plan anything for the future. Surviving each day has become a precarious business for many.
Thanks to former minister Champika Ranawaka’s road widening, I now live within sight of a drug-infested neighbourhood. Drug dealers and addicts pass in front of my house everyday. This has been the case for two years, but it has been peaceful cohabitation. Not any more – several houses and businesses along the road were burgled since the dawn of 2021, a motorcycle was stolen, and someone pinched my motorcycle helmet from the garage. I now keep the gates locked 24-hours a day.
The mood of the country has changed, and it’s grim.