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Pooja Malhotra has been working from home for the past five years. A senior writer at APCER Life Sciences, a global provider of safety and technology services, Malhotra used to clock in six hours of focused work daily, till the nationwide lockdown happened in March. Mounting household chores, absence of house help and looking after the needs of family members, who, like her, are bound to the house because of the virus, now take up much of her time and energy. “I have always had a dedicated office space at home, but over the past months getting mind space has become a struggle."

For women particularly, lockdown has challenged professional productivity, with the paucity of space, mental and physical stress and, in many cases, inadequate family support.

Let’s talk about sharing

Traditionally, women in India have always done more unpaid work—an average of six hours daily compared to less than an hour a day by men, shows a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Indian men, who never considered housework their responsibility, have been doing more housework during the lockdown, but are still largely helping on the periphery, leaving much of the heavy lifting to the women, even if both partners have equally demanding professions.

More families are acquainting their children with household chores as well, but Maitrayee Chaudhuri, sociology professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, socialization is still very gendered. “Even if families encourage young boys to help in housework, it may be subject to ridicule among peers, neighbours or even the extended family."

There is a glorification of a woman’s “natural" ability to multi-task. Some cope admirably while others struggle to keep up, heaping additional pressure on themselves. Shaheen Bhatnagar, a communications consultant at a senior care platform, never opted to work from home in the past, despite her company’s flexible work options. “At home, my multi-tasking mind takes over and I feel I should put the cooker on while checking my mail, which makes the same amount of time unfocused and not as productive as in the office."

Some of the stress of multi-tasking is due to a self-inflicted pressure to control standards. Kaveri Nag, marketing lead at an automobile company, feels incredibly stretched these days. Though her husband has tried to help around the house, she believes it’s easier if she does most of the tasks. Constantly exhausted, she feels guilty for not spending enough time with her children.

A multi-generation family-sharing living space does not make for the most peaceful work environment. The days tend to be longer with professional work being relegated to time slots when the children are asleep or when housework is over.

“I can only focus on work in slots of half an hour or max 45 minutes, sometimes only 10 minutes," says Malhotra.

Companies are trying to help employees work as efficiently as possible, incorporating initiatives like well-being calls, mental health checks and virtual fitness activities. But these do not always translate practically. Nag says there is no down-time when working from home. “There are company initiatives like family lunch hour, where we are discouraged from working, but I end up eating at my desk."

Forestalling conclusions that the gender imbalance in housework has remained unchanged at this time are the experiences of women for whom the transition has been easier as husbands and other family members share the load.

Jocelyn Jose, who works with an NGO, enjoys the focus her home environment brings. “I don’t have children or elderly family members with me. Between my husband and myself we manage all our chores and office work smoothly. My husband does most of the cooking since his type of work and timings are much less strenuous than mine."

Mutual respect for each other’s professional roles and sharing in unpaid work is imperative for work from home to be comfortable. Nicky Singh, vice-president, GolinOpinion-MullenLowe Lintas, a PR organization, says her transition has been easy. “In our family, home is the responsibility of every member. Their responsibilities have been clearly laid out for them since day one."

For working from home to be successful for all genders and age groups, it is important that problem areas exposed by the lockdown are addressed. Among them, gender parity in housework and childcare, and not just occasional assistance, is among the most essential ones.

Prof. Chaudhari believes change will neither be instant nor meaningful through individual efforts alone. “There is more sharing, but there is also resistance. There has to be broader social consciousness—media, politics, policies," she insists. Women also need to allow other family members to participate, even if they make mistakes. And most importantly, it is important for women to be kind to themselves. As Malhotra has learnt, “Multitasking drains you. It’s okay not to be able to do everything perfectly."

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