S02E01: Rethinking Work in the City

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Anchor: Are you thinking of quitting your job? If so then you are not alone a global survey of 2021 revealed that 54% of employees considered leaving their current employer if some sort of a post pandemic flexibility was not offered.

Anchor: Do you like your job? Does going to work make you happy? Or would you rather be at home with your family or do something else?

Deepika: Looks like we are about to kick off season 2 with some intense questions!

Arpita: I know right, those questions do sound intense! But if we are going to talk about well-being in cities, what’s a better place to start than the one where most of us spend a large chunk of our days – the workspace.

Deepika: Yeah, in the last two years both work and the workplace have found themselves unwillingly transformed as per the whims of a virus.

Arpita: And these changes alongwith all the other things that the pandemic brought seemed to have put this lens on the way work has shaped up and affected our lives in the last couple of decades.

Deepika: You know in a May 2021 Bloomberg article, Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University who has studied the exits of hundreds of workers very prophetically announced that – “The great resignation is coming”. The numbers are multiplied, he says, by the many pandemic-related epiphanies—about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means—that can make people turn their back on the 9-to-5 office grind.

Arpita: So today we thought we’d explore what happened during the pandemic with the help of some people who did something different with their jobs and lives during this two year period.

And the first of those is Ashwini.

Ashwini: My name is Ashwini Someshwar, I’m 38 years old, of which I’ve been married for 13 years. We have a nine year old daughter. I work for an IT product company. Been there for over five years now. I’ve been working in corporate for over 17 years.

Arpita: Ashwini works within the Human Resource or HR department, a role in which she has to support the needs of a team within the organisation.

Deepika: And from the very corporate we head to the world of fashion with Arjun!

Arjun: Hi. I’m Arjun. I live in Bangalore. Currently, I’m a fashion designer by profession. I’ve been in the fashion industry for about 10 odd years.

Arpita: And fittingly for both of us – our third chat was with Arundhati, who is from a sector most familiar to the two of us – the development sector.

Arundhati: Hi, I’m Arundhati. I work in the development sector as a consultant, my main interests lie in the area of gender and development and organisation development. But I’m currently based in Bangalore, was formerly based in Gujarat.

Deepika: Last and of course far from being the least is Abbas, who works in good old Bollywood.

Abbas: So my name is Abbas Khan, and I live in Bandra Mumbai. Most of my career, that is about close to 14 years have been spent working actively with the, on the production side of films, advertising and television series. I have been producing, the last few years I’ve been producing TV series and movies.

Deepika: Four people, four very different areas of work.

Arpita: Yeah but i think while they’re each very different, it is useful to also remember how they’re similar. They’re all largely jobs within the formalised work structure and qualify as what we might commonly call – white collar jobs.

Deepika: Right, in comparison to blue collar ones which are often understood as those involving high physical or manual labour and often come with poor pay and security.

Arpita: Exactly, so today we are speaking of work in the context of white collar jobs. And I think what’s useful to remember as we begin is that like you said white collar jobs are seen as better paying, offering more security and clearer protections. They are often the dream of the masses, most of whom work within the informal blue collar sector.

Deepika: Yeah, that’s a good distinction to make. And I think interesting cause in one way the question at the heart of the conversation today is what went wrong with the dream, right? I mean these are jobs people wanted, so what’s gone wrong and what needs remedying?

Okay, so where do we begin?

Arpita: Well let’s begin with how life was pre-pandemic.

Arundhati: So before the pandemic, I was working in an organisation that was extremely grassroots based, so I had work that was pretty much round the clock and six days a week. So it used to mean early morning travel to the field. And then on Mondays and then staying in the field almost through the week, travelling back on Saturdays to my home base. And then pretty much spending Sunday just barely catching a breath before Monday morning again. So that that was basically work hours.

Arpita: It wasn’t just Arundhati who was doing very long hours, all four of them seemed to echo this experience.

Deepika: Yeah this is Abbas.

Abbas: Based out of the locations that we’re filming at the long days, sometimes 14, 15, 16 hour days. Whereas the office days, the pre prod and post production phases, sort of include regular office hours, extended regular office hours about about a 9-10 hour day on an average.

Arpita: And Ashwini..

Ashwini: It was a full day’s work and just when we left offices, so I think when I would come back, I probably get a quick break to do something back home. And then, you know, we probably need to get back into meetings later in the evening. So yeah, I would say it was it was quite, it was quite full already. In fact, I think I was almost struggling with it sometimes, right?

Arpita: And Arjun!

Arjun: I remember telling everyone saying I don’t want a nine to five job. I don’t want a nine to five job. And I think I got my wish. Because I used to work 9 to 11 in the fashion industry, which I wasn’t prepared for. But yeah, that’s pretty much how our days used to be pretty much 10-11 hours a day work.

Deepika: And then the meagre weekends would end up becoming catch up with life chores, rest and then back to the grind.

Arjun: Weekends, I would say probably go play cricket, or play some music somewhere or go out, get a drink. That’s all. You know how the weekends fly, right? So before you know what, it’s Monday morning, again.

Arpita: You know some might say that considering the fact that these jobs are in the higher tier of income one shouldn’t complain about long hours cause they compensate adequately – so a bit of perspective could be useful here.

A 2021 ILO Report revealed that Indians were among the most overworked and underpaid workers in the world. And here we aren’t speaking of just the blue collar workers, it pointed out that among Indians, it is the well-paid employees – both salaried and self-employed – in urban areas who work longer than those in the rural parts of the country. Just the kind of people we are speaking to today.

Deepika: Right, so while they might be doing better in the arena of income, the working hours are far from ideal or even expected when one compares to the hours similar workers across the globe are expected to keep.

Arpita: And added to the working hours most of them were already putting in, there was the expectation even of more.

Arundhati: In the development sector, I think there is a real sense of martyrdom that comes with any work that you do, any social change work that you do. And an expectation that you will burn yourself out. So, if you’re complaining about the fact that you’re not doing well or feeling well, there is not really space that holds that either.

Deepika: As people who’ve been a part of the development sector, this seems pretty familiar – the valourisation of burnouts, to keep going come what may.

Arpita: And even pre-pandemic she was already feeling its effects.

Arundhati: I was starting to feel like it was really wearing me down, there was a real physical burnout that I could feel, but also very real emotional burnout that was starting to affect all my personal relationships. Where I was, I just found myself being really short with people being unable to give emotionally in relationships around me, being very, very, very snappy, very quick to lose my temper.

Arpita: While not classified as a medical condition, burnouts are recognised by the World Health Organisation in their diagnostic tool, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). They define Burnout as a ‘syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ And they say that it’s largely characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and the third reduced professional efficacy.

Deepika: Some of which Arundhati is describing there.

Arpita: What’s interesting is that while Arundhati was dealing with the unreal expectations within the development sector, Ashwini was facing something quite similar in her very corporate environment.

Ashwini: I guess the competition was always on. And I guess the expectation was always that, you know, if you’ve done X, then you know, next year, you could do about 1.5x, right? Which is, which is very hard to keep up with, unless you change your job or unless you change your role. So yes, so I think that bit of racing, for more and more, was very much a part of the culture that was set, not just in my team, but across the company, and I think across many companies within this sector.

Arpita: This meant that there were rough patches when tasks became so overwhelming that Ashwini found herself pulling all nighters to cope, leaving her too exhausted to do much else, day’s when her partner or family would have to pitch in massively to help her cope and catch up with her rest.

And here it’s useful to remember that Ashwini actually works for a company that values empathy and has built in systems which support employees in times of need and is seen as one of the best companies to work in.

Deepika: Yet the larger corporate culture of pushing yourself more and more and living with the expectation of out-performing your previous goals was constantly looming, right?

Arpita: Exactly.

Ashwini: I do think sometimes that expectations were set a certain way. Perceptions were built a certain way, because of the kinds of timing someone would put in, or because of the kinds of ways that certain people would show up. You know, ‘I stayed up all night to hear or 2am meeting, oh really what went on it, you know, could you tell us more’ and that person would get the centre stage while the rest of us who chose to probably sleep, didn’t.

Deepika: To sleep or not to sleep – that seems like a very unfair ask! And, so what we are seeing is that across sectors many are already feeling stretched by unrealistic demands, long hours, interspersed with periods when things are very rough and hard to manage.

Arundhati: What ends up happening is that there is there is a glorification of busy, there is a constant glorification of busy that’s happening in every single part of it… and it’s all pervasive in terms of, with my friends, you know, always talking about it, my family always talking about it. It’s very difficult to create a different value structure, when you’re so surrounded by placing value in being busy.

Arpita: Like Arundhati says, there was no simple out – cause it’s not just about their organisations but also the culture of their sectors. And it’s good to remember here that while this might not be the case for the women we spoke to, for most women juggling remunerative work with other unpaid care based work of raising children, managing family social obligations and ties and running homes is still very much a reality – hence it is not surprising that there is a gender angle to the experience of burnouts.

For example, a survey by Harvard Business Review using 2018-19 data showed that the well-being of women was already suffering at work pre-pandemic. They reported higher stress levels in larger numbers than men. And of course there were other finer dynamics such as women with children or of colour showing even higher stress levels.

Deepika: Right, so with that we come to March 2020 and the pandemic hits.

Arpita: And so much changed dramatically overnight as very strict lockdowns got instituted.

Abbas: There was in the initial days there was so much fear, there was so much sort of uncertainty around what COVID is, you know, sort of how does it transmit and, and the first wave sort of was devastating the world over, you know, the risks involved for personal health and safety. And that kept all of us in the whole film-making fraternity, sort of confined to our homes, waiting for sort of things to change. Waiting for sort of possible medical solutions for vaccines, for easing of regulations, in terms of, you know, as the sort of initial easing of regulations happened whether in India or overseas, you still can’t film with say, four or 5, 10 people, you know, big projects, you need big teams to come together to execute that.

Arpita: For Abbas and the entire film industry – where little could be done without large teams physically meeting up for shoots and post production work – work came to an abrupt and uneasy pause.

Deepika: The film industry is very project based and when it shuts down like that, many livelihoods are affected across the board. It isn’t strictly a typical white collar job. While Abbas as a producer would certainly be more financially secure, this isn’t true for a large number of people who work in the industry, so I can imagine the uncertainty was immense. And the film industry is really far from the only such one.

Arpita: Really each of our chats, for me, represents a different element of the very complex experience that was the pandemic. For as many faced the deep uncertainty of a complete lockdown of their industry, others faced the escalation of work in theirs! Arundhati, being a part of the development sector, found herself inundated by the many issues that arose because of the lockdowns.

Arundhati: We were dealing with the migrant crisis and the hunger problem, and, you know, the shadow pandemic, which is the violence against women. All three of them hit us pretty hard. And all three of them were so closely tethered to a state and a system that don’t care.

Arpita: As a senior member of the NGO she was working in, she felt compelled to show up day in and out irrespective of how exhausted she herself was feeling. And she wasn’t just responding to the lockdown and pandemic related issues only, she found herself informally becoming the sounding board for her co-workers who were struggling through the crisis themselves.

Arundhati: So if somebody had feelings or issues, people would just say, ‘Oh, why don’t you speak to Arundhati? You know, why don’t you speak to her because she’s been speaking to all of us. So I think that, that sort of overtime just formalisation of that was the role that I had, that I played, this was in addition to an incredible amount of work that we were doing on the side, both relief and rehabilitation.

Arpita: And to top it there was the overwhelming stress of managing and watching over all of one’s housework alongside her partner, even as they were taking care of their parents and their health needs.

Arundhati: You ended up having to cook and you end up having to take care of the house. There were a lot of other expectations of generally looking out for one another that had to be done. Emotionally also, both of us were really, really, really affected because of several things that were happening in our personal life. And so, there was a lot of emotional care labour that we were doing for one another all the time with extremely depleted resources.

Deepika: I can really relate to that – in fact so many of us would. As home and office merged during the pandemic, one wasn’t just looking after work needs, but there were children to raise, homes to run, caregiving for older members of the family, for self and partners – and as research after research is now telling us – as expected it was especially more difficult and overwhelming for women because of how traditionally care work is seen as their domain.

Arpita: And at her IT company, Ashwini, on the other hand, initially experienced a milder office structure.

Ashwini: I think I was working maybe two to three hours in a day. And that’s it. And that was just fine. We’ve always had a work from home option at the company that I’m in. So it was really easy for this one to shift its entire workforce, to work from home.

Arpita: It allowed her family a few easy initial months of adjusting into the new normal as they began calling then.

Deepika: I suppose the scenario changed as the months piled on and companies began to fall back into their old patterns?

Arpita: You guessed it – workloads increased significantly even as little else changed and suddenly the lull was over and the storm was on.

Ashwini: So simply put, I went completely crazy. Me, my husband, everyone, right, everyone in the household went completely bonkers. Because we literally couldn’t find five minutes, when we were free. I think it just turned into very mechanical, robotic lives where we wake up in the morning, you know, get the housework done, jump into our meetings, and then keep juggling between meetings. And, you know, sitting with the kid for her online classes, somehow going from one meeting to another, and having to switch contexts having to switch you know, content of what you’re thinking, what are you doing? I think creativity took a big hit because it was just about getting through every day. And by the end of the day, I think we were so exhausted, we just fall flat on our backs and go to sleep. Just to wake up the next day and do it all again.

Deepika: And to think that work escalations began happening post the first year i.e. in 2021, the same year that India experienced the second and the worst wave of the pandemic. Literally each one of us knew someone who suffered greatly or died because of Covid in that period.

Arpita: Yeah, and it was such a frantic and anxious period – ambulances used to blare on the streets the whole day for a long time – it was a terrible and heartbreaking period and to sit with this overwhelming sense of horror, pain, ache of what we were collectively experiencing and then somehow continue to work – seems so inexplicable.

Arjun: It just felt like the amount of pressure that I had at work just felt like I was probably making vaccines for Covid or something. Whereas I was just making clothes at the end of the day, right. So it just didn’t feel like such a big deal. But that’s how my work used to feel that it was a really big deal.

Deepika: I remember a lot of people echoing Arjun’s sentiments from that period. People were juggling work even as their families fell sick, as public health systems crashed and we all sort of lived in this prolonged experience of direct or vicarious grief and anxiety.

Arpita: And you know somehow that juxtaposition is really powerful – for a lot of us facing the fragile mortality of our loved ones and our own in this very stark manner really put a lot of things in perspective. For Arjun, as it turned out – the decision was to quit.

Arjun: While we were all transitioning into work from home and new modes of work and all of that, there was still no, it just felt like, you know, nobody was really trying to understand what everyone was going through individually, and how tough it was to transition into these new modes of work. And that’s what was the last straw for me.

Deepika: Wow – yes. One can see, feel even how all of this has been building up since a while.

You know, though, remote work was one of the really big outcomes of this whole pandemic period. And while being stuck inside the house 24/7 was noones favourite way of doing things, I think people and organisations very quickly began to realise that there was something interesting to the ability to trust people to work remotely from places they were happier to function out of. Not only did it mean hiring lesser office space, other resources for the organisation but individuals also seemed to see some value in it, even outside of the context of the pandemic.

Arpita: Indeed, this is something we see in the case of Abbas, who was used to an erratic 24/7 schedule of the film and ad industry. He made the mid-pandemic decision to shift from project based work which needs massive presence and hands on management to working full-time with Amazon Prime which gave him the structure and ability to do things differently.

Abbas: The interesting thing for me was that for the first time ever in my career in my life, this sort of working profile, or this environment, working environment remotely allowed me to actually work out of any location possible. So I didn’t have to be confined to my house per se, or, you know, an office per se, I could do the same job as long as I had a good working internet connection, I could do the job from anywhere in the country.

Deepika: You know there was something freeing about being untethered, all the more during the pandemic where living in small apartments and congested cities was taking a severe toll on people. So we heard so many stories of people who took this opportunity to travel or to be in different surroundings because remote work allowed it.

Abbas: I decided to sort of move up to the hills close to Dharamshala and I took up a small place there along with my partner and spent another few months working out there which was thoroughly enjoyable. Although the hours were long and the work was intensive but the fact that I was in a very, I was close to nature, something that I enjoy a lot, I could, with whatever time off that I did have, I could go out and explore the environment around me go out for walks, go for hikes, and enjoy sort of the cold weather in the north, although this was in the middle of the monsoon.

Deepika: I think the need for being able to be out in the world, especially within nature – became so profoundly felt during the lockdowns and being able to do something like this was precious and special.

Arpita: And while in the pandemic this became a big conversation, it does seem that it was a conversation that’s been waiting to happen. Pre-pandemic many smaller countries around the world had already come up with special digital nomad visas for remote workers – they would provide the ambience and the internet to enable you to work and live there with ease and in return the digital nomad would enrich the local economy by buying and spending there. So it’s not surprising that since the pandemic more and more countries are working towards making themselves look good to digital nomads.

Deepika: And i think even if one didn’t travel, there was something lovely about being able to spend more time with your family, your kids, and especially not on the tedious exhausting long work commutes. Maybe it wasn’t immediately evident cause so much was happening but in 2022, we are definitely seeing more people welcoming the idea of continuing with hybrid work – some days in the office mixed in with some days at home.

Arpita: Definitely – and we’ll come back to that in the conversation ahead but for now let’s return to what happened as a result of the waves of Covid in India especially the second most devastating one.

Arundhati: One of the one of the major reasons I finally ended up putting in my papers actually was that my father got COVID.

Arpita: Already beleaguered and exhausted, Arundhati asked her organisation for leave so that she could look after her 60 plus year old parents who lived closeby.

Arundhati: I need to cook food and deliver it to that place every day. This is something.. and make runs to the hospital for tests for medicines for tonne of things and I said this to the organisation and I got an email from HR saying, you don’t have any, you don’t have any leaves pending. So this will be leave without pay or something extremely tone deaf at that moment. And it felt like it felt even more in that moment how little I was being seen.. Or my situation was being seen or my hurt, pain was being felt by the organisation.

You know, a daughter saying that she does not have the ability to show up because she’s not sure her father will make it through. And, and that, I think at that point was, was really that, that I think hurt the most, that felt like the biggest betrayal in some sense.

Deepika: It was an unprecedented and overwhelming time, and organisations being tone deaf and insensitive, as she puts it, just made things so much more worse.

Arpita: While Arjun and Arundhati found themselves overwhelmed and decided to take the decision to quit, Ashwini was caught in a different bind.

Ashwini: So my child has special needs. And she needs more attention when it comes to her education.

Arpita: Midst the mayhem of juggling so many tasks, her child’s school informed her that they were no longer feeling up to the task of supporting her child’s unique needs. This meant that they needed to find her a new schooling space that worked for her.

Ashwini: So as a family, we just took the decision to make it easy on all of us, and that this was a priority. And it helped that my company was 100% supportive. So all things put together, we decided that I would take a break from work, and invest that time and energy in making sure that she has what she needs in preparation for this academic year end.

Deepika: This sounds easy but I bet there must be long conversations behind such a decision.

Arpita: Of course, quitting or taking a break are far from easy decisions. For each of them, the decision came in the wake of being heavily pushed. And even when it was taken, questions always did linger. Quitting, leave taking especially for mental health or even long sabbaticals – are all often still frowned upon and seen as ‘bad career moves’ even if this isn’t openly said.

Ashwini: So I was wondering, you know, how long I can actually afford to be off work? What happens to my financial independence, job security, boredom, or whether I would end up being a helicopter parent? I think there were a lot of questions of identity as well. Because I always associated what I did, as a big part of who I am.

Deepika: Yeah in the kind of society we now live in, when one first meets, the second question after an exchange of names is – “what do you do?” And of course it implies explaining the sector one works in and the job one does so like Ashwini says – it has become very intertwined with our sense of self.

Arpita: You know at a point when I was taking time off a few years back, when people used to ask me what I did, as a bit of a self entertaining social experiment I used to give these answers – like they’d say i’m an accountant or i work in this sector and I’d go – ah and I wander gardens and sit by trees, grow plants and read lots. And it would leave people looking totally baffled and confused – as if I had given the wrong response to a coded question in a spy movie!

Deepika: Yeah it’s like the rest of what we do has become secondary, and the job – the thing that is an indicator of our economic place in the world – really has come to define us over all else, whether we like it or not.

Arpita: Well, luckily for Ashwini though, she did not have to quit.

Ashwini: So I asked for three months, to just take some time to figure out what we needed to do. But my manager actually insisted that I take eight months off, and that would take me till the end of the academic year. And that was such a big relief, I mean, the minute she said it, my entire body just relaxed.

Deepika: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an instance where a manager asks you to take more time off than less!

Arpita: And really I thought this is one of those times one sees the difference between a good organisational response and a poor one. Where Arundhati’s organisation came across as tone deaf, Ashwini’s responded to her crisis situation with understanding – making her feel genuinely supported, seen and enabled.

But there was more to what helped Ashwini settle into her break.

Ashwini: My husband, he knows, you know, how I stress about some of these things. So he actually decided that, you know, part of his salary would just come into my account on a monthly basis. And, you know, he understood how, how important independence is for me. So I think there was just a surge of very security instilling actions that came in from, you know, the rest of my family, from my friends and from my organisation. And all of that put together I was easily able to take the decision that I needed to take some time of my work and focus on my daughter.

Deepika: I love that! The pandemic really brought forth the conversation on unpaid care work that goes into running houses, maintaining social support systems and ties – a larger load of which is carried by women in our gendered society. Just recognising that and responding to that within households is really important.

Arpita: A research by Oxfam showed that on a regular day, women in Asia spend 4.1 times more time in care work than men. And like you said with reduced access to support and with greater responsibility of care work with children and vulnerable elders at home – another bit of research showed that women were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown, and conditional on losing work, eleven times more likely to not return to work subsequently, compared to men.

Deepika: So if we are to genuinely enable women to be in workspaces – we need to have structures and support systems both in offices and homes which begin to recognise this and make the change. Not something we haven’t known – but definitely a realisation that comes across more powerfully with the experience of the lockdowns and the pandemic.

Arpita: And in these experiences and examples I think we begin to unpack what can be done differently with work. When Arjun, Arundhati and Ashwini finally stepped out of their jobs and Abbas changed the way he did his job – they all noted that many things shifted.

Ashwini: I’m actually enjoying time for myself, I’m enjoying meals, I’m enjoying meeting friends, family, you know, travelling, sunshine, a number of things, which shouldn’t, you know, it should be a part of your day to day life, it shouldn’t be such a once in a blue moon occasion, right. And I think this pandemic has forced me to do some things, some things that I would otherwise have been so uncomfortable with. But it’s also given me a chance to explore them, to come to terms with them, and to actually see that there can be a different way of living life. And it’s now made me very comfortable with that.

Arpita: Ashwini wasn’t the only one who reported the joy of suddenly finding quality time and the ability to give quality attention to the important people in her life.

Arundhati: I was seeking out friends, something I had not done in so long. Because I just did not have the space for them in my life. Because so much else was completely taking over. And just the inviting in of other people that I was able to do, that we were able to do as a couple made us so much happier. And it felt like gasping for air. You know, it was like my mental health was like, it suddenly had access to so much oxygen and felt like and it just didn’t know what to do.

Arpita: Not only that – they were also able to find new hobbies and develop other interests!

Arjun: It’s been exactly a year since I’ve been out of work. And it’s been great. So to answer your question, what life has been outside of this, it’s, it’s been great, I’ve been able to get back in touch with some of my hobbies, and spend some more time at home and just do basic things like cook meals and chill and listen to music or whatever, you know. Just to be able to find time to do the little things that you always tend to put off. And to realise the amount of joy those little things bring. And to have forgotten all of that in the last 10-12 years. That’s been amazing.

Arpita: Ashwini went on to do a yoga instructors course –

Ashwini: Recently, what’s most exciting is I qualified as a yoga teacher. So that’s been an interesting addition to my skills.

Arpita: And Arundhati discovered gardening –

Arundhati: It feels like love.. it feels like care, it feels like the kind of thing that I want to be associated with and be in so yeah, so it is something that allows for your life to have multiple avenues of interests and hobbies and new relationships and being able to have the time to cultivate meaningful relationships.

Deepika: That sounds beautiful! I think even as we spoke to them, we could sense the change in tone when we came to this part of the conversation. Be it working from a different setting that allowed more flexibility, taking a break to just be or quitting altogether from the job – the outcome of better physical and mental health was immediately evident to each of them.

Arpita: Yeah Arundhati shared how even her periods which had been painful in the past, almost immediately became much more regular and pain free. The reduction of stress and the genuine ability to rest and be – transformed the quality of lives they were living.

Ashwini: I think its reminded me of priorities, it’s reminded me of my own health, just how short life can be. It’s also shown me that work is important. It makes one, you know, feel useful. It gives you independence, it helps you explore your creativity, your problem solving. It keeps me constantly learning new things. Separating life from home, you know, that’s a good one, that’s an important one to have as well. But if it doesn’t stay within its limit of just being a part of life, then I think it does go on to squeezing all the goodness away, you know, from everything else till you find yourself just sitting in a seat and constantly trying to tick off some to-do’s from a list that is never ending. Right. So while I did think about all of these things, pre pandemic, a number of times, and I’ve had all kinds of emotional upheavals because of it. I think, I think it’s given me the courage, it’s just been, it’s just given me the courage to think differently.

Deepika: I don’t know if we can say this enough really – the pandemic was and continues to be that collective historic life changing experience that has affected each of us in so many profound ways.

Arpita: And I think often that this clamour of returning to a previous normal does not do justice to all the wisdom that has emerged from this tremendous period of churning. And the wisdom about how we should be working is a critical arena.

Abbas: I really didn’t believe before the pandemic that it was possible to work the way that I have been on sort of the, how the world has shifted to sort of remote working with flexible hours, locations, and so on. So suddenly, that’s the big shift in terms of something that I thought was impossible. And, and I know that now, I know that the same levels of productivity, efficiency can be maintained, we just needed to sort of take a step back, relook at our systems, and processes, mechanisms.

Deepika: Abbas’ words ring so very true – the extremes of the pandemic are mostly behind us now and yet the hybrid work idea is still very much around like we discussed.

Arpita: And it’s not just hybrid work. The pandemic was able to awaken us to the many ways in which even though white collar workers might have big incomes, the quality of life being lived might be questionable. So now other ideas which were in the margins before have suddenly found centre-stage – ideas like four day weeks for instance!

Deepika: Oh yeah, in fact i read about this interesting experiment from before the pandemic that Microsoft did in its Japan office where they tried a four day week.

Arpita: Which seems like the perfect country to try this out in – Japan is known to have an unforgiving exhausting work ethic which has actually lead to a phenomena called Karoshi – which literally translates to ‘overwork death’ and is often caused by heart attacks, strokes or even suicide.

Deepika: Exactly – so what Microsoft did was it gave its 2,300 employees three-day weekends for the full month to assess the merits of a reduced workweek and the findings were extraordinary – the firm saw productivity rise 39.9% compared with the previous months and the company also gained by the fewer resources being used thanks to a smaller work week!

Arpita: And this really is only one of the many such experiments. Countries like Spain, Iceland, Belgium and others have already begun trying out these four day weeks experimentally.

And that is not all – the right to disconnect – the ability to say no to calls and mails from work beyond working hours is also finding takers, some even in India!

Anchor: Nothing can ruin your well-deserved time off on your weekend than a phone call from your boss so this may come as a heartwarming news that certain members of parliament understand that and empathise with your pain. In an attempt to make all of our holidays better a private members bill was introduced in the parliament for the right of employees to refuse to receive calls after office hours.

Deepika: We are still distant from this being passed but countries like France, Italy, Spain and Ireland have passed laws supporting the right to disconnect and more may follow!

Arpita: Yeah, its does look like stop gap measures will not do. Big structural changes are required.

Abbas: So even as the world resumes to sort of office environments and regular pre pandemic office hours I would still seek a certain amount of flexibility with my work life to be able to work a certain amount of time, remotely work from home, as I have done over the last couple of years. Whether that be fewer days in the office on a weekly basis, or whether that be sort of, you know, taking a couple of months of regular sort of office life, and working remotely in a year, whatever opportunity sort of comes up in that manner, I would like to take that.

Arundhati: I do believe that until you have a care policy in place until you have different policies in place that speak to the ideology that you’re saying. You’re otherwise you’re not really putting your money where your mouth is, you can say you really care about your employees. But if you don’t have a mental health policy, if you don’t have a care policy, if you don’t have a creche policy, if you don’t have a you know, any one of these things that helps to take some of the emotional care work off people and actively show that the organisation cares and sees what you’re going through.

Deepika: Amen to that and a genuine return to a life which is more fuller and vibrant!

Arpita: You know as we were speaking, I was reminded of this essay by John Maynard Keynes.

Deepika: The famous British economist known as the father of modern macroeconomics.

Arpita: Exactly. And the essay was written in 1930 and was called: Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. And Keynes back in 1930 predicted that in decades ahead the number of hours of work would drastically reduce, and if I may quote him here – “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Deepika: Wow so he thought in the decades ahead, which is i suppose is about now – we would have fewer hours of work and more time for just living life?

Arpita: Yes, but that’s not all. There’s more to the quote! He said: “The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes”.

Deepika: It does seem like the pandemic for all its literal ills, did open something of a great possibility for us. A possibility to reconsider where we are and who we want to be – indeed as Keynes says – to reflect on and embody the art of life and living.

Outro: This conversation on re-thinking work will continue in our onlines spaces so do join us there! In our next episode, we continue exploring the topic of work but this time from the perspective of gig workers. We’ll look at the rise of gig work, the gig economy and what changed through the period of the pandemic. Join us as we talk to Sowmiya Ashok, a freelance journalist, who has conducted research on this and listen in to get a glimpse of their everyday reality.

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The Sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.