As lockdown lifts in Pakistan, many workers return to work, many do not. Will Covid-19 change workplace culture for good?
At the beginning of this year, the world became a part of an unprecedented social change. Largely confined to our homes as if our life depended on it, we began operating in a survival mode. This ended up having a visible effect on our work lives. Work from home (WFH) suddenly became an acceptable mode of work on a scale that we, in Pakistan at least, had never witnessed before. A godsend for some, these long months of physical isolation were utterly disastrous for others in terms of mental and emotional well-being.
A couple of theories have emerged among employees and managers about what work will look like moving forward. One is that we might be looking at entrenched unemployment over the coming years. This theory partly stems from the fear that loss of a job during big downturns is more often than not, permanent. According to a recently released report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), as many as 2.3 million young people in Pakistan were laid off during the last six months. Going by this theory, a worrying future awaits us.
According to the other, seemingly more popular, theory workplace culture will evolve to such an extent that it will eventually become possible for large sections of employees to continue to carry out work from home.
For Ali Haider Habib, a better WFH environment would be something to look forward to, but returning to work would also be nice. Despite the initial excitement, Habib faced many problems as he began working from home. “The 9 to 5 went out the window. I’d wake up and open my laptop in bed to check emails first and would brush my teeth later,” says Habib, who is a spokesperson for a non-profit law firm representing the most vulnerable prisoners.
He says that he struggled with the guilt for not being productive enough, even though he realised it was misplaced. “It is still a challenge. But I am also constantly grateful that I still have a job. Many others, less fortunate than I, have lost employment as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and my inconveniences seem petty in the face of that hardship.”
As the country reopens, Habib looks forward to going back to work but thinks that the general social behaviour at work will change considerably. “Things like not sharing lunch or eating communally, which I have always found to be a great way to bond at work, will be a little depressing.”
However, he also hopes to see workplaces implement measures to reduce their carbon footprint by allowing employees to work from home where possible, “thus reducing the need to have them commute in gas guzzlers; or reducing the amount of electricity, printing paper etc used at the workspace.”
Zainab Abidi, a data and consumer insight analyst for a multinational company, went through a similar situation. Despite being able to work in a more focused manner, WFH also meant a blurring of personal space for her. Having to work at odd hours resulted in exhaustion which “further affected my mental health. I started getting irritated very soon.”
She says that despite the initial excitement of returning to work, people will find it challenging due to the strict SOPs laid down by many companies. This might eventually lead to more companies coming up with ways to encourage and facilitate remote working.
A couple of theories have emerged among employees and managers about what work will look like moving forward. One is that we might be looking at entrenched unemployment in the coming few years.
The biggest challenge for her however would be to control her emotions once she returns to work. “Working virtually I could disguise them, hence I will have to be more mindful once I go back to work". She says that the coming year may see a lot of changes in roles. “There will be tremendous focus on the digital side of things and hunt for such roles will begin. Offices will also focus on strengthening relationships at work and building equity, learning new things and adapting to the change.”
Anika Khan has run a successful Webhosting business for the last 9 years. For her business, WFH brought a positive change as the demand for online services increased manifold. She is wary of the fact, however, that a number of businesses do not have a proper online presence. “I got a real setback from them, as they saw online presence as an added expense and discontinued business.”
Khan is optimistic that despite the many challenges businesses are facing, they will soon bounce back to where they were pre-lockdown, and not just tech startups. “If there is one thing Pakistan is known for, it’s resilience.”
As an entrepreneur, she feels that employers should now be more open to changes around the workplace. “The whole dynamics of the work environment and business structure will be evolving now.”
Najam ul Saher, head of talent acquisition at PepsiCo International, thinks that remote working will see an overall rise. “If we manage the change responsibly and intelligently, I don’t think leadership will be a challenge because virtual working is all about keeping employees engaged, ensuring that the focus is not on the quantity of time spent but the quality of the output.” As WFH is both cost- and time-effective, both organisations and employees have much to get out of it, says Saher.
The workplace will change tremendously post-lockdown, says Saher. She thinks that because of Covid-19, work opportunities have decreased, due to which there might be an increase in side-hustling. “Also, because we have now gotten the flavour of flexible working hours,” she adds.
In the coming days, she says, employers will need to be more focused on creating a proper work/life balance. She says that for organisations where WFH continues post-lockdown, there is a need to establish the fact that “there has to be a cut off time for employees to stop working to maintain work/life balance, to ensure their emotional/physical well being.”
Saira Aziz Khan, a licensed psychotherapist from California, believes that prolonged isolation has had an immense impact on people’s emotional well-being. “There has been a general increase in depression, obsessive behaviours and a decrease in the general ability to do things quickly. People are getting anxious about social interactions as they have forgotten how to.” However, there is a silver lining, she adds. “People have realised that they don’t need much to survive.”
According to Khan, all of these behavioural changes will be reflected in the workplace once employees return to work. “You cannot separate personal from professional because it is the same person dealing with both the scenarios. When you go to work, you somehow, shut your mind to some extent, compartmentalise, something that isn’t possible when you are working from home,” she says. She thinks it is encouraging that organisations are now looking to have support groups and run mental health workshops for their employees. “However, much more is needed in Pakistan.”
For now, it is hard to say with certainty how workplace culture will evolve post-isolation, as many workers continue to work from home and the need for social distancing is still there. But one thing seems certain, work from home is here to stay in some manner.
“I feel that this has proven to us that so many more jobs (than we had first anticipated) do not require our physical presence in a collective space. I hope it has also taught some employers that physical attendance is not always the benchmark for productivity either,” says Habib.
He thinks that the phrase ‘working from home’ has forever been redefined. “It is no longer a euphemism for taking the day off,” he concludes.
The writer is a staff member