Thursday, March 20, 2008

Home Work

By Ajit Chaudhuri

‘Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air
And feathered canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way’[1]

The issue of work-life balance has finally hit the politically correct workplace. Options such as flexi-hours, working from home, and part-time work can now be taken without saying good-bye to your job – or so the bosses say. Of these, looking to work flexi-hours can be realistically got away with only if you have troublesome children, dying relatives, or clients in a different time zone. And part-time work brings about the vexing combination of having to meet full-time expectations on part-time wages. It is working from home that has serious attractions – a laptop, phone and Internet connection makes one productive wherever and obviates the need to commute, put up with the shitty coffee and have your finger on the abort key and your mind over the shoulder every time you play a game on the computer. But – will this actually work for you, and are there some pitfalls that you should be aware of in this seemingly win-win option? Is there something in those rats’ maze-like workspaces that makes work productive and fun? Are there downsides to peace and quiet and a TV and fridge within easy reach?

I have had an office in a large organisation as well as the right to work from home for the past nine years. Before that, I had stints working in an office and stints working from home. And before that, I worked completely from office. Here are the views of an expert!

When I first began to work from home, it was like a dream come true. No dressing up in the morning, no commute, no disturbances – I got a lot of work done in that initial month. The fringe benefits were great as well. I was able to watch Tendulkar bat on my large colour TV instead of having to sneak off to the small B&W at the nearby shop. My lunch was hot, and my tea as I liked it. And the guilt-free afternoon siesta … ah!

But then, I started getting on my wife’s nerves – I am still to figure out whether it was my mere presence or the frequent raids on the refrigerator. And the cleaning lady, ironing maid and dog walker began to think that I was unemployed, and even began returning change. Relatives began to drop in whenever they felt like, assuming that I was free and available to chat and do odd jobs. And I was very, very happy to go back to working from office, commute, shoes and tie, fresh shave and all. I now follow a middle of the road path, working from office for some days of the week and from home for some. And (while I do occasionally wake up in the morning and decide to slob out for the day) working from home does mean getting into work clothes, sitting down at a desk at a fixed time, and putting in the same hours with the same intensity.

For those planning a similar option, here is some advice.

First, go for this only if you are self-disciplined. Many of us need the structure that an office provides to be productive, and the business of getting up, ready and out of the house is necessary for its own sake. Those with a proclivity to slob out should beware! If the TV programme starts gaining in importance, or if you find yourself deciding to put things off until you are more ‘in the mood’ later in the day, get back to office.

Second, go for this only if you have a specifically demarcated workspace within your home and you are able to insulate yourself from incessant demands from the family on your time. The spouse will be unlikely to appreciate the fact that your presence will not reduce his/her burdens on shopping, cooking and housekeeping, and children tend to think that if an adult is at home, the sole purpose is to entertain them and do their homework. If you can’t handle it (and you will be shocked at the stuff they teach in schools these days – I for one am way out of my depth with my 11-year-old’s syllabus), you are safer in office. No spouse and no children? Not to worry, relatives, courier boys and salesmen will do an effective job if you are willing to be disturbed.

Third, keep a space in office functional if you have the option. A surprising amount of work gets done because of being around. The boss and colleagues can walk by for a chat, you can feel the pressures, you can figure out the politics, you can see the breakdowns and burn outs, and you can take timely action. Retaining a space is sometimes difficult – an office’s relationship with an under-utilised workspace is somewhat akin to nature’s with vacuum. If you don’t visibly occupy it, beware of covetous colleagues, it will be taken over – more so if it is the corner one with windows overlooking the park.

Fourth, watch out for danger signals. If you are losing your ability to focus on matters that are important in the long term because of the demands of a more immediate nature, get back to office before it all blows up on you. If you are graduating from watching only the football on TV during the day to the football and the afternoon weepies to these and the talk shows to anything at all, you are in trouble. And if you are being by-passed in decision-making chains, you are unlikely to get that next promotion smoothly.

Fifth, don’t see this as a long (or even maybe medium) term option unless you are willing to leave the fast track. You will notice that the boss does not work from home, except on weekends. While you may effectively meet your targets and do the stuff written into your job profile, doing the other things that are necessary to rise will be difficult – mentoring younger colleagues, supporting mentors in their battles, or dealing with that scum-sucking underling who has an eye on your job. And the chances of you being around to take charge when the fertiliser hits the fan are limited. And getting back on to the fast track, or on to any track at all, is surprisingly difficult once you are off.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I would advise against jumping at working from home if the option were available. It works for some, but it is not everybody’s cup of tea. If it’s not yours, recognise it, resist the temptation, and stick to office.
[1] This is the beginning of that old Joni Mitchell number ‘Both Sides Now’.


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

hi Ajit,

Thanks for the 2-pager: the subject had lots of resonance for this reader, as you can imagine. But then, I'm one of those who discovered very early on in life that I'm practically borderline dysfunctional when it comes to working in space that's not (physically and notionally) mine entirely. Guess, you can put it down to low concentration powers, but I need solitude for thinking and writing...

Agree with you totally on the watchpoints and pitfalls of working from home. Earlier, I did work from home. But now (last 8 years or so) that I have
this little space at my parents which is office (but within easy reach of home comforts - especially feshly brewed coffee and lunch!), I realized how
important it is for me to be able to "leave for work". And to be able to separate work and home.

Again, I think it comes down to self-discipline. You need HUGE dollops of that quality to be able to work from home, like you rightly point out.

And your warnings to all those who want to remain in the promotion trajectory are very apt. The number of persons (all women!) who I know who believed they were hitting that magical balance between career and family when they wrangled a flexi-hour, flexi-space sweetheart deal from their
bosses only to find they had successfully negotiated themselves out of the promotions pathway, is alarmingly high. And it wasn't (as you say) because they weren't delivering on targets..on the contrary they were putting in
more than before ion a kind of over-compensation.

On another note: I went into the poetry site. Of the four, I enjoyed The Contract the most. So: the boy can sing (what's the reference - from the 80s again??)

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Your advice is six months too late, Chau. Have
graduated to Tamil soaps now!


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Dear Ajit

I am discovering several aspects to 'homework' post IRMA-Part 2, including living with my husband after almost 3 years and both of us learning how to live with a daughter. Manging home for the first time ever from instructing the maid, to running the motor, cooking, etc, and most importantly keeping an almost 2 year old engaged have been the most challenging tasks I have faced in my life so far. All 'work' I have supposedly done in the past years
seem like cakewalk. I think I should be quite happy working from home, except that I love the gossip at office. And unless I make friends here (in a theatre group I am hoping) I will be headed soon to a 9 to 5 office set-up, unless ofcourse my husband finds ways which earns him more money than he can spend. Else on the count of discipline, etc, I find office set ups can often be more abused and little work done in the time available...Both the Gram Vikas and IRMA expeience bore that out...

Curiosity took me to your newest blog. Will coment on the poetry later, but will say like the other titles, I like the title of thsi blog too. I had very uncharitably hurled 'male menopause' at Shashi Tharoor last year when he went on and on about women and I feel it was not such a bad thing to say!

Ciao, Jaya

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