Citynotes Collective’s attempt here will be to present worker’s experience in their own language. Even without falling in tune with grammar’s normative compositions, language reflects the rhythm of experience and its cacophonic contradictions. Any fellow comrade who would like to share her experiences on the changing work relations inside or outside home in this time of emergency may contact us. Our sharing of experience is part of the political process of workers’ inquiry and workers’ self-inquiry. We would try to articulate this more clearly as we move on. Amidst the pandemic, solidarity is necessary for organizing in collective action.
(Translated from the original कोरोना और वर्क फ्रॉम होम: एक आईटी वर्कर के अनुभव, April 27, 2020)
Most of the companies in the corporate sector where a possibility of “work-from-home” existed have already applied it, citing lockdown conditions in the unprecedented time of corona virus pandemic. The idea of work-from-home is nothing new and has been in practice for quite some time. As a socio-technical experiment in changing working conditions, work-from-home was being deployed in various places previously too, albeit this pandemic has turned it into an imposed necessity for a lot of workers. But the question is – at what price? A lot of other questions also emerge from this – how would this affect the companies? What would be its effect on workers’ lives? How would it affect the entire system? What would be its effect on the future and is there any future at all?
In popular discourse, we see other aspects of this new working condition being discussed: such as, how to be productive while working from home or how to safeguard one’s mental health in such conditions. Did we not envisage an age when we would get time off from our offices? There, you have it! But there is still disappointment and stress; but why all the stress? Because there is a fundamental difference in enforced working from home and having a choice in working from home. There is obviously more to this than meets the eye, many more grave reasons have come to fore; the future is uncertain, but wasn’t it already uncertain before the pandemic hit? Things before the pandemic were the same as they are now, the only difference being that they are sharply visible in their contradictions. Yes, things were precarious, the pandemic has only intensified this precarity. It has done nothing new.
Freelancing and work-from-home were already finding fervor in pre-corona time; post-corona, the stretch for this experiment has increased and there is a renewed vigor for it to be a permanent condition of work. This work condition is only set to increase if things remain as they are. In the past 15 years, work from home has increased threefold. A 2016 paper titled “Does Working from Home Work?” elaborated upon an experiment done among workers. Initially it was found that the experiment proved to be a cost-effective way for the company in terms of physical space but for the workers there was a persistent problem – that of stress and loneliness. This situation emerged for those for whom work from home was possible but it wasn’t their first time, now there are some for whom it was possible but they had never tried it before, for them, this period became even more challenging. There are still some for whom work from home was not possible, some were even laid-off, some continue to work in the same companies with pay-cut but are fearful of being laid-off at any given time. However, all these workers have something in common – stress, loneliness and the fear of losing their jobs.
This fear of losing one’s job has become more pervasive now. Earlier the worker had some assurance of finding work in a different company, but the virus’ penetration deep into the system has rendered everything unstable. Even the experts in the field cannot predict when things will normalize, if at all. The frequency of mails from the senior leaders of the company has increased. Most of them are related to boosting the morale of the employees, which in turn implies that they should maintain earlier levels of, or in fact increase in, their productivity. The upper most echelon of the company has forfeited 25% of their salary for now. In the near future, even we might have to suffer pay cuts until the company finally shuts down. The stocks of several companies have gone up, even production has increased.
A company like Amazon is at its peak, stock-wise. However, things have only just begun. Once shares/stocks begin to fall in other companies, it is bound to affect bigger companies like Amazon. We are also receiving interview calls from companies like Amazon. But when lay-offs happen, it mostly affects people at senior positions with fat-cheques or those who have recently joined a firm. This is also among one of the fears that is withholding workers from changing their jobs/positions/companies. It is no longer the case of one worker or one company where a transition from one company to the next gave us some assurance, but now the entire chain is beginning to collapse.
Earlier the workers met in a physical space, co-workers spent breaks between work together, and there were gossips or conversations about other things. But now they are restricted to working from home entirely. Earlier the manager was able to keep an eye/manage things easily when everyone worked in the office, co-workers were also on track, but now all this exchange between bodies is only in the virtual space. The intensity and hours of online meetings have also increased along with general work. In these conditions, office gossip which provided some respite from regular working hours has also vanished with social distancing becoming the new normal. Earlier working together while sharing a physical space encouraged a sense of competitiveness among workers, though this would have forced one worker vis-à-vis another to work, or one could say, stay forcibly focused at work.
In a physical workspace the workers could afford to share their problems. One did not necessarily have to plan this in advance, but that possibility has disappeared and along with that a certain semblance of maintaining an interest in one’s work. One has to make an extra effort in order to coordinate with other team members since all interactions are online, shifting from the real to the virtual. However, this online mode of interaction opens up the possibility of slowing down time by the workers – through late/delayed responses to the managers – by slowing down the effort that was earlier required to manage not just the team members but also ourselves through them. Power nap can also be taken but that comes with its own problems. Production nonetheless is in continuous operation. Even if there is no additional work as such, old/secondary/low priority/cost-saving work is being done by workers. Wherever things can be automated they are being done with heightened zeal. This is being focused upon a lot so that the company/leaders can create a perception that work is being done/is ongoing, so that the company does not suffer any loss if employees are laid off, so that the workers don’t become lazy or when tomorrow things return to ‘normal’ they can return to work with the same intensity of productivity as before.
Even when work has shifted to the virtual realm, there are still deadlines to be followed, thus even when a worker thinks of taking power naps, she still has to complete her work and if she can’t, she will be answerable in her meetings. You wake up and once again return to work, overall, even if working hours appear to be the same, it is more scattered now, hours of meetings have increased. A friend who works in Amazon says that 4-5 hours of working days are spent in meetings and when she and some of her colleagues complained, the manager wasn’t bothered by them. For some teams in these companies, work has increased much more than before, therefore managing one’s time has become difficult. Those teams, where the intensity of work hasn’t increased in these times are afraid that they may be laid off soon.
There is definitely this particular heightened form of anxiety which results from these working conditions where we are unsure as to how long we will be able to hold on to our jobs. This anxiety also obstructs our focus on work. Along with disinterest in work, there is of course loneliness. The work which seemed customary until yesterday seems to appear much more burdensome now. The more this work appears burdensome, the feeling of loneliness and anxiety increases proportionally and thus we are caught in a loop.
Along with our professional lives, our personal lives have also been affected immensely. Earlier, work, at home and in the office, at least in appearance, seemed different. To carry on being productive or in order to reproduce ourselves (i.e. our labor power) we did some of the work ourselves and for some work we were dependent on others. The workers on whom we were directly dependent (in order to be productive ourselves) such as cleaners, cooks, runners, shopkeepers, have all but gone. Most of them have either returned home (as migrant workers away from big cities) or are not able to open their shops or leave their houses, under strict conditions imposed by the pandemic. This entails having to do all these chores ourselves, i.e spending at least 4-5 hours doing them, which in turn affects the way office work is done and gives rise to more anxiety and tension. Cooking three meals, tea/snacks, cleaning the entire house, utensils, waiting for the shops to open at their particular (limited) time to buy and stock up groceries, waiting for the sanitation workers to turn up and hand them the garbage, keeping the house organized to avoid things piling up and the anxiety of that disorganization leading to more stress – in between all of this we have to continue doing our office work.
One could say that this chain which connected all these workers (social relations of productive and reproductive sphere) has been exposed by the virus. In this entire system a lot of workers had to stop working even if their livelihood depended upon it. The work that they did for our households so that we could continue doing our office work (housework/services that were outsourced to these workers) has to be performed by us now. How long would we have to carry on like this (for those working in IT/corporate sector, working long, erratic hours, where much of the domestic work is outsourced to other workers who are themselves migrants, and affected in worse ways by the pandemic) no one knows. The entire system is being disrupted.
In the midst of all this, one is also getting a chance to connect with long lost friends; those who had got too busy working are suddenly back on social media. Call hours with these friends have become longer, since some of them have more time on hand. Even if one doesn’t have enough time these calls provide some sort of relief from rising anxiety and stress that the current working conditions have given rise to. ‘Netflix and chill’ seems to have surpassed its dose of entertainment and workers are also undergoing various emotional stresses. Old threads of conversations with friends are resuming again.
Social media has only made us realize how lonely we really are. We were lonely pre-corona as well. But longer stints in front of the screen have only made one hyper aware of this reality.
Those who are married or staying with family are facing a different set of problems. Earlier, when the physical space of the office and household were separate, one spent 8-10 hours in the office, 6-7 hours sleeping, another 1-2 hours in daily chores and the rest was spent with family. In many instances, the male and female worker (here husband and wife) held separate jobs and spent weekends with each other. But now, in the past 1 – 1.5 months this separation of physical spaces has merged into one, the household has become the space of leading both professional and personal lives. Peculiar problems are emerging. With this added stress and anxiety many families are breaking apart. Familial antagonisms are on the rise, along with domestic violence and cases of child abuse. Tension between children and parents has also heightened. One day a senior female leader of our team forgot to mute her audio during an online meeting session and we, her colleagues, became privy to her situation of domestic quarrel. Another female co-worker laid stress on things returning to ‘normal’ (in terms of working hours at her office space) so that the time spent with family could remain what it was during pre-corona time; since clashes at home with other family members had become more frequent. Our relation with ‘home’ before ‘work from home’ has been made clear with these contradictions sharpening.
It has given us an opportunity to understand how different these two spaces of work and home were. Or was there really ever a separation between the two? Where can one locate these problems exactly – at work, at home, at ‘work from home’ or somewhere else entirely?
Isn’t it becoming evident that even if we want things to return to the state that was before the pandemic, things will remain as they are? It is not as if things before can take us to some ‘pure’, ‘prelapsarian’ edenic state. A desire to return only means that we want to run away from the present, since what is happening now is only manifesting itself more strongly in terms of our dislike for it. Time spent with family has increased, which means sharpening of familial contradictions which were earlier hidden or repressed due to its paucity. One can see the crisis of future and capital in more clear terms. The family cannot remain untouched from the crises of capitalism.
How this will affect the future of the companies, will they be able to save themselves, will we be able to save our jobs, remains to be seen. Let us for a moment consider that the best (worst) case scenario of 2021 sees everything return to ‘normal’, life/work rhythm returning to where it was, the return of Friday nights and Monday blues. But the kind of time in terms of new possibilities arising or of various reconfigurations that the virus has provided the companies has invariably also been given to us, the workers. The kind of experiments being done in the name of work-from-home willy-nilly by the companies, inadvertently also have given us the time to conduct certain experiments. Lot of things are being made apparent, the direct-indirect results of which can be seen now. We can see stress, anxiety, isolation, productivity and various activities in the name of self-entertainment. It’s the time to be productive, a time to be productive without working or if there is no time then why be productive at all?
The virus has given us a lot of time to think about our systemic programmatization and its resultant crises. It had to implode sooner or later. This crisis is not a result of the virus; the virus has only laid bare this system. It has made us skip into a future where these crises were waiting to manifest themselves.
The real pandemic is capitalism. It is not just imperative that the virus be destroyed but alongside it, the entire system. If still this system is able to save itself somehow, then things will only become more and more barbaric.
The real antidote to this pandemic is communism!