A vacation for a week in my daughter’s school – a private school in Kolkata – in early September was for an interesting reason. It was aimed at getting rid of ‘screen fatigue’ after months of online classes during the Covid-era. The school authority expected that students and teachers would rejoin online classes with renewed vigour and energy after this short break!
Personally, I liked the idea very much. While many schools across the country and also across the globe are struggling to operate online due to inadequate access to smartphones, computers and internet data, and the digital divide is getting intensified, many other schools, universities and institutes have been able to keep the momentum going, and these online classes thus have become a robust substitute for classroom-based classes in many places.
Simultaneously, there is no denying that as people started to spend more time online attending meetings, classes, binge-watching Netflix and gaming, a pandemic of “screen fatigue” has also emerged. There were frequent complaints in the pre-Covid world that people were getting more and more addicted to smartphones and social media. We now understand that was really never too much. Never before have we spent more time glued to our laptops or smartphones for official meetings, classes, getting “work from home” done, social gatherings, consulting physicians, and of course for participating in social media. Social media usage is increasing with a tragic rise of social media addiction in many cases. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrust the lives of countless people around the world into a virtual space – so much that it has earned its own slang term, “Zoom fatigue”. While people got stuck at home, several virtual meeting platforms have boomed during the pandemic, growing from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to more than 200 million in March 2020.
Some of my friends working in the corporate sector went almost missing in social media after they had to work from home due to the pandemic. One of them later explained that it was an additional effort to coordinate with his team members who are also working from home. Also, some clients kept on calling even at late evening hours as they knew everybody was working from home. Earlier these clients in Europe had to call within working hours in India. Also, in such a prolonged and compulsory make-shift work-from-home environment, there is no specific lunch hour, no coffee sessions and no chatting-time with colleagues. And, more importantly, there is no human touch at all. Understandably, my friend became quite happy when his office reopened in August.
Working from home is nothing new though. Data data from 2016 exhibits that 43 per cent of the American workforce works at home at least some of the time. Of course, I didn’t find any such precise and data-based estimate in the Indian context. Certainly, working from home was considered a rare corporate privilege in the pre-Covid world.
Covid-19, however, has completely changed the scenario, opening the Pandora’s box. The prolonged lockdown has exhibited that more than half the people of this planet are compatible, at least partially, with remote work. If we take students into consideration, the proportion must be much higher. The pandemic has illustrated that it might even turn out to be quite advantageous to employers. Work-from-home means savings in terms of office space and other resources, and also the transportation cost. Thus, the post-Covid world would need profound changes in office space needs, workplace design, workforce policies and practices, and employer, employee, and environmental outcomes.
According to a study report of Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting firm, demand for US office space could shrink by over a billion square feet as a result of this overall work-fromhome culture. Virtual meetings would reduce business travel drastically and would also save lot of money. It is estimated that work-from-home initiatives would save US employers over $30 billion a day. A typical employer would save about $11,000 per year for every person who works remotely half of the time, and the employee would also save between $2,500 and $4,000 a year.
No wonder that many people are preferring such a working environment – only 6 per cent are unwilling to work from home in future. Overall, a fourth to a third of the total workforce may continue to work from home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021. Of course, these and other estimated proportions might differ a bit in some other survey, but the situation would certainly be similar. German Labour and Social Affairs Minister Hubertus Heil even wanted to present a bill to give workers the right to work from home by making it a law.
As the unlocking is going on throughout the world, more people would go back to office more frequently. Schools and universities in different parts of the world would start regular classes as soon as practicable, I suppose. However, now since we know that we can do a lot sitting at home, the culture of work-from-home would possibly dominate with added vigour. The genie is out, and it would be impossible to put it back into the bottle.
While a gross “work-from-home” culture could reduce congestion and pollution, and improve work-life balance, there is obvious danger of city centres becoming “ghost towns”. However, this may induce quick decentralisaton, and there have been suggestions that the shift could conversely boost local neighbourhoods and independent businesses.
Interestingly, however, while 76 per cent of global office workers and 82 per cent of US office workers wanted to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over, only 16 per cent globally and 19 per cent in the US wanted to adopt “only work-from-home” ever after. In fact, most preferred a “mix” of work-from-office and work-from-home. We might even seek the precious opportunity of working from office in the new normal setup like we preferred work-from-home in the pre-Covid world. For that would provide a bit of human touch and much-needed relief from inevitable “screen fatigue”.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.