His concern is not misplaced. As some corporate leaders revel in the short-term success of forced virtual working and reduced operational expenses, it’s not too far-fetched a thought that work from home might soon become our permanent reality, especially since there’s no immediate cure for coronavirus in sight. Giants like Twitter, Google and Facebook, the ones who once prided themselves in spending millions to create playful “knowledge parks" that encouraged personal interaction, are embracing remote working. In this celebration of the virtual workplace, companies are neglecting to soberly consider perhaps the biggest risk involved: the absence of personal, face-to-face interaction and its impact on mental health.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Satya Nadella gave a similar warning. While talking about the serious consequences of permanent remote working on the mental health of workers, the Microsoft boss said virtual video calls cannot replace in-person meetings. Switching from offices before the outbreak to an all-remote setup would be “replacing one dogma with another dogma", he added.
A week ago, United Nations (UN) secretary-general António Guterres urged the international community to increase its efforts to address issues related to covid-19-induced psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, which are already “some of the greatest causes of misery in our world".
If we shift our focus just to the young working population, currently under house arrest and working non-stop to ensure their productivity logs don’t become a reason for a pink slip, we might just realize that we are sitting on a time bomb.
Within a week of the start of the nationwide lockdown, the number of reported cases of mental illness in India rose by 20%, as shown in a study by the Indian Psychiatry Society. The reasons are many—from fear of job loss, salary cuts and unemployment to indebtedness.
“We are all in a depressive state right now. It’s getting more difficult to detach ourselves from work. You are constantly working, the pressure is always on and then there’s the pressure of home responsibilities. It will be very difficult to survive like this if work from home becomes permanent because such a lifestyle actually lays a strong foundation for psychological distress," says Shalaka Shah, a psychology professor at FLAME University in Pune.
Where minds meet
An office is not just a physical space. It’s a place where we meet people, forge relationships, share food, gossip, crib, laugh, even cry.
Prof. Shah explains, “Our work gives us a purpose. And if you think about it, it’s not just the work assignment that you go to work for. It’s also the many interactions with team members, those brainstorming sessions, those tea breaks, those secret talks about the bosses, that give work the kind of importance that it has. When you have a doubt about an idea, which you would have otherwise sorted by walking to your colleague’s desk, would you now do a video call with them?"
In the West, it’s perhaps easier for workers to adjust to the work-from-home lifestyle, considering they are more individualistic. In the subcontinent, Prof. Shah explains, workers need social interaction.
“We are as invested in the work culture as we are in work," points out Amit K. Nandkeolyar, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.
When Delhi’s Meghana Dougall, a self-confessed extrovert, joined a food delivery startup just before the lockdown, she was looking forward to the many interactions she would have with her team and bosses. “We have our casual chats, our coffee session over Zoom but it’s not the same. I don’t like the whole transactional way of doing work," says Dougall, 33. Despite several attempts by the company to ensure that all team members are working together and enjoying their time, Dougall still thinks a rapport established by face-to-face conversations can’t happen with virtual baking sessions or talks about pets over WhatsApp. “It just feels artificial and forced. I just feel there’s nothing to look forward to."
If the virus is here to stay and work from home is the only option, is there still a way to ensure that this desire for human interaction can be addressed?
Prof. Shah says it needs a lot of work from company leaders. “First of all, this pressure tactic of ‘do it right or you may lose the rat race’ needs to go. They need to be more compassionate than they are trying to be right now. They need to take time out to really listen to their employees, and not for the sake of it. We are talking truckloads of empathy and patience."
After that, the companies need to create a way where employees can return to office once or twice a week.
“There’s just so much evidence that social bonding is necessary for a person to flourish in their life," says Prof. Nandkeolyar. To do that, companies will have to take all the safety measures, follow government orders and come up with a plan. “Let’s not forget that it’s only when several minds come together at the workplace do we get a better, more efficient solution to any problem. By making work from home permanently, we are risking not just the mental health of people but also innovation and a better way of life."