Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!
This popular phrase attributed to the Aesop’s fables came to mind as my workplace scrambled to put measures in place to implement new directives issued in light of the Coronavirus situation last week.
Finally, my long-held wish to work from home was coming true. Yippee!!
I had first toyed with the idea of requesting my boss to let me work from home more than twenty years ago. I was a young mother then, enjoying my first job as a research scientist.
It was the best of times. I loved my job, my home, even the short ride to work. It was also the most precious of times. My long to-do list refused to shrink despite the many items I crossed off each day.
If only I could get one day a week to work from home – I could fold laundry while answering emails, attend calls when my toddler took a nap, and get dinner started in the precious minutes salvaged from the daily commute. And just maybe, have those extra minutes to chase butterflies and hang out in the playground with my child.
It was my first job and I worked in the laboratory most days which meant being tied to the physical location. As expected, my request was denied.
The following year I received a promotion which added managerial responsibilities to my job description and reduced dependence on lab work. My duties now included supervising the people who reported to me. In the pre-Skype/Zoom days, this could only be done in person. Again my request to work from home one day a week was denied.
For a short period during the decade I spent in India, I was self-employed. This was the only time I worked from home. I felt I had overcome the tyranny of the clock, choosing to work during my most productive hours of each day.
As a consultant, I did not have one boss, I had many. Early morning flights, late evening calls, and impossible deadlines kept me on my toes. I didn’t mind. I could extend a business trip for a short excursion to a nearby resort or even slip away to watch a matinee move on a weekday depending on my schedule. This flexibility and freedom came at the cost of a monthly paycheck but it gave me control over the most precious commodity – time.
The quality of our work life is determined by the work culture of the place we live in. Despite having worked in large corporations in the USA and India, after the relative freedom of an independent consultant’s life, when I moved to Singapore and landed a full-time job, I found it difficult to get back into the groove.
My commute on air-conditioned trains and buses, although civilised and comfortable, took away almost two hours each day and drained my energy. When health conditions added to my daily fatigue I once again started praying for respite in the form of the occasional option to work from home.
My prayers were finally answered in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Except for one caveat. My family members had also been mandated to stay home.
Instead of having the house to myself, I moved from room to room with my laptop in search of a quiet location with a comfortably cushioned surface to attend to work. The family had the same exact thought. All four of us scrambled to sequester to the guest room, the only room with a formal desk AND good internet connectivity.
With technology enabling online classes for the kids, and phone calls to people locked down in their homes but scattered across various continents and time zones, the house was constantly buzzing with activity. It might have been easier to designate each bedroom as Meeting Room 1, Meeting Room 2 indicating times that demanded silence from co-workers, in this case, family members.
Laptops and phones were constantly being charged. Everyday at least one person madly searched for their earphones, yelled at others to keep quiet, or interrupted important calls with trivial questions. We clearly needed a written standard operating procedure for household interactions during pandemics.
Another hazard of working at home is the lure of an afternoon nap. To resist the temptation, I avoided the master bedroom completely.
The kitchen, on the other hand, had no such restrictions. This led to a severe drop in quantities of junk food which qualifies as “essential” during such times. I made a note to add unhealthy snacks to the pandemic preparation list, in addition to toilet paper.
Naively assuming that ordering online would take me a few minutes, I logged on to my favorite shopping website to find that it had crashed owing to surge in demand. A task that took me a few minutes once a week now turned into an obsession with hourly checks to find an open delivery slot.
Another irritant was my phone – reminding me of the number of steps that I had not walked this week. On most weekdays my commute and a short post-dinner walk helps me complete my target of 10,000 steps fairly easily. Not so during this week. It’s 4 p.m. and my phone shows 475 steps for my daily count.
I look forward to a nice long walk in the evening but the rain gods have different plans. There’s thunder and lightning, a heavy downpour that looks pretty from the comfort of my living room which has a pleasant green view that becomes particularly striking on rainy days. I sit with a cup of coffee and brownies (baked due to popular demand) to watch the sight, aware that less walking and more calorie consumption is probably not in my best interest.
Coming back to work, it is getting done. Not as efficiently as when I am in the office, but enough to keep the wheels churning at a time when every project timeline and priority has been turned upside down.
The chaos within and outside the house mirror each other. In one week, we have made one run to the emergency room (for a sprain which luckily was not a fracture), a couple of runs to the grocery store, and several long walks on wet walkways at night.
I miss my colleagues though. For the interim, we are all stuck at home whether we wished for it or not. Unlike me, some of them have a harder time as single parents or with little kids who don’t take easily to staying home. We communicate through whatsapp groups – sharing forwards with scary news and dire data, funny jokes and silly strategies, hoping to get through the next few days (or weeks).
All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed. And perhaps make a new wish. For things to go back to back to normal. I just hope this wish is granted soon. Going back to the office no longer sounds banal, it could quite possibly classify as an adventure.
Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog