“Working from home”

“Working from home”  is  a sound concept in the commercial sense. It saves real estate costs and investments,  fuel reimbursements , expenses  on tea , furnishings and  coffee, lunch . A  number of cleaners,  peons and  sundry  helps can be asked to move on. The list of potential savings  is perhaps endless.

While there is  no alternative during times of a pandemic, of concern is the recent tendency to propagate WFH as a permanent feature or the new normal. A classic example of commercial interest predominating over the softer aspect of the human being as a social animal , of destroying the essence of the human identity. It is not that the employer will benefit in the long-run because the productivity of isolated individuals connected through the computer screen is bound to  decline over time. However, short-term interests predominate, in this case immediate profits.

 By nature, humans cannot excel without  interacting  with others. Not just corridor gossip but the overall process of working in a group at office invokes the pleasures  of group working , coupled with learning experiences. Most of the time colleagues interact not for gossip but to exchange ideas, seek opinions and learn in the process. How many times in our life have  a  chance conversation with a colleague  resulted in unlocking  a problem  grappling with for the last  few days? How many times have  we gone to our boss to seek his opinion on an issue? It can be argued that this  can be achieved also through remote connectivity  but  the scope is limited due to bandwidth constraints , the process of calling more tedious  than walking up to his room  and the  effectiveness diminished because there is no substitute to face-to-face discussions. It is easier to communicate through body-language, through  expressions, by walking up to the whiteboard to draw a diagram or  demonstrate a concept with the help of objects. To gauge his understanding from  the  expression on his face necessitating repetition of a concept. Then there are  group brain-storming sessions to spark myriad ideas.

 Studies of the “learning pyramid” indicate that while group discussions lead to  50 % retention. lecturing  results in  5 % only.  A practical demonstration generates 30 % , while reading can only be  10 %. effective .

Progressive organizations  think differently. Yahoo revoked mobile work privileges since  “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” Samsung’s  US headquarters was designed to contain vast  outdoor areas sandwiched between floors , luring Samsung’s  engineers and salespeople to those spaces. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” said Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor. The new building “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.”

A neglected aspect is the emotional quotient , honed by interactions  with  fellow  human beings. A work-place is where  we are compelled to visit . We can meet friends at a café or a pub only on weekends or on an occasional evening . The famous social neurologist,  Mathew Lieberman ,has argued on the basis of empirical evidence   that our need to be social is so strong that it could be  rated as more fundamental than  food and shelter. How many times have we pined for support from  colleagues when faced with an intemperate boss ?  Or sorted out a dispute between junior colleagues by making them sit face-to-face?  Or a pat on the back, in the literal sense , from a boss has energised us ? Does not a  gentle smile from  a  colleague of the opposite gender start off our day on a positive note?  Or winning a table-tennis match at lunch-time?

The question naturally arises is – why is WFH then being  propagated so hard recently, more so after the pandemic ? I have already stated that the it is to achieve short-term goals, the feature  of neo-liberalism –  the need more prominent now that we face a bleak recession.  Do we remember the 2008 depression ? Are we to understand that the honchos were not aware that loan-fuelled growth  was destined to fail at some point ?  Also  emblematic of the domineering philosophy.  On the cusp of an Orwellian dystopia , we have stopped looking at human beings as human beings but  cogs in a  massive machine to generate profits . WFH beautifully slots  into this denouement,   reducing   Man  to an automaton or  a Star Wars Droid.

Upal Chakraborty

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