When Zoom became a verb, and home, an office
Till February 2020, the 29-year-old (name withheld to protect identity) was an upwardly mobile driver in Chennai. In 2016, he bought three cars spending upward of Rs 35 lakh — to ferry passengers for an aggregator service. His equated monthly instalments (EMIs) come to Rs 26,000, but he hired two drivers and his own expenses were low. Having migrated from a village in Villupuram four years ago, he lived with three other unmarried men like himself in a hostel in Teynampet; he enjoyed his work, driving in the streets of the big city, striking up conversations with people from around the country, and sometimes, the world.
Then, in March, his life was upended as India declared a lockdown.
“I haven’t been able to pay my EMIs since March,” he said. After the moratorium on loans announced by the Reserve Bank of India ended August 31, he requested his bank to excuse him till the year-end. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year,” he said. Though he has been back on the road since June, when Tamil Nadu allowed cabs and autos to ply again, passengers are few. His drivers have long quit their jobs and returned to their villages. “I don’t know how much longer we can rely on driving for a living,” he said.
Around nine kilometers away, the 15,000 sq ft office of SaaS (software as a service) company, Kissflow Inc, in Tidel Park — complete with a pool table, a café bar and swings as seating — is being made ready for the 225-odd employees set to return starting January 2021 in a “3+1” workflow model adopted by founder Suresh Sambandam. They have been working from home since the national lockdown was announced.
In the new system, every fourth week, a cluster of teams that work together will be asked to come to office —it’s voluntary, Sambandam added. “We want them to come to work, hang out with each other, go into huddles. This will help teams bond and it’s fine that only 50% of the work is getting done that week,” he said. The rest of the time, they will continue to work from home. And the town hall meetings, which took place every Friday for all employees, will continue to take place over video conferencing.
The pandemic has affected work and life in a manner that has been both unprecedented and disruptive.
Zoom, once an app, is now a verb, and it’s not the only indication of its meteoric rise in popularity. On August 31, video conferencing app makers, Zoom Video Communications posted $663.5 million in revenue in the second quarter. In comparison, last year, its revenue was $145.8 million. As offices began to ask their employees to work from home (WFH) — India’s largest software services company, Tata Consultancy Services, announced that up to 75% of its global workforce will work from home by 2025 for instance — it became clear that such digital tools would become the norm.
However, the pandemic was also a year where joblessness soared. According to a livelihood survey carried out by researchers of Azim Premji University among nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual, and regular wage workers across 12 states, nearly 87% of the self-employed workers in urban areas reported that they had lost their employment. The survey also found a massive increase in unemployment and a dramatic fall in earnings. Even those who were still employed saw a fall in earnings.
For 35-year-old Ganga, who sold fruit in Delhi’s Shankar Market before Covid struck, this year has pushed her further into precarity. Ganga, who lost her income when the lockdown was instituted and markets were closed, eventually found work in a small-scale factory. However, her income was considerably less. To spin a wheel that wrapped bicycle tyres, she would receive as little as 40 paise a wheel; it added up to anywhere between Rs 5,000 to 6,000 a month. In December, the factory asked Ganga to leave because the supply of wheels to wrap fell short.
Experiences have been disparate, but a common concern emerged around the world: companies were forced to consider how the open office could be made safer for clusters of employees.
At an online webinar in April, Delhi-based architect Manit Rastogi, founding partner of architecture firm Morphogenesis, predicted that larger companies may consider a hub-and-spoke model: smaller offices or spokes that lie close to their employees’ homes which do not require them to run the risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus by travelling to the main office, or the hub. In this solution, technology serves as the bridge. “We have moved from an industrial model of work, everyone clocking in and out, to a post-pandemic model, which is about productivity,” Rastogi said.
Furniture-makers have teamed up with scientists to research what constitutes a safe open office. In June, US furniture company Steelcase announced that it had teamed up with disease transmission specialist Dr Lydia Bouroubia, the director of The Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been studying the spread of pathogens through fluids like droplets in the air.
Other companies introduced new products into the market tapping into that very basic need of any office goer: comfortable workspaces. Subodh Mehta, senior vice president (B2C) Godrej Interio said that their work from home furniture range, which previously “comprised about 3% of the sales, increased five times” during the lockdown and subsequent unlock months. This included sales of the 30 new products launched this year.
However, author Aparna Piramal Raje said WFH was more of a “living at work” situation, which isn’t sustainable. Most companies, she argued, will come up with a “hybrid plan”.
Sambandam’s Kissflow is already on it.
(With inputs from Divya Chandrababu)
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