Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Of WFH and #KitaJagaKita

While working from home may still get the job done, those who call for lockdowns with no consideration of the consequences on anyone else should rethink their positions.

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When I started my first job some seven years ago, the idea of working from home was an alien concept.

I remember coming home from the office after completing my first month on the job and telling my parents that I was allowed to work from home now. They were understandably sceptical. “How will they keep track of whether or not you’re getting things done?” they asked. “Perhaps they’re just being nice.” And, words of wisdom from the treasure trove of every Asian parent ever, “You’d better go to office and use their aircon, not yours.”

Their concerns were completely justifiable. In a world where dogs eat dogs and rats run laps to see who comes out first, working from home was considered the height of luxury, perhaps even frivolity. An office presence was necessary to make a good impression on superiors and, truth be told, I like my aircon cold.

Fast forward to today, and working from home is suddenly the new norm. From dogs and rats, we’ve moved to a world where Covid-19 stalks the streets and anything that can be uprooted from its physical location and transplanted to the intangible domain of the world wide web has been moved post-haste.

At first, it’s fun. Work from home? In pyjamas the whole day, the fridge just around the corner and the TV remote within easy reach? No more fighting traffic at 7am, no more paying through the nose for parking, and no more forking out for overpriced mixed rice. Humanity reaches the peak of civilisation.

After a while, though, it gets to you. Not that you miss endlessly circling for parking at ungodly times of the morning or fighting rush hour traffic only to reach home at 10pm. But you miss the back and forth conversations in the office and heading out for lunch in groups. You miss wearing something other than ratty old T-shirts and, if you’re a parent, you miss working with other grown-ups. Not that you would ever admit it because it might make you sound like someone social workers would come after, but working from home only really works if you can sit down in front of your laptop without finding that someone with small fingers covered in peanut butter has already been there and left copious amounts of evidence behind.

There’s a certain pressure that comes with working from home, and if you’re a parent with young children, it’s compounded by a million and one other things. The challenge to deliver takes on much greater proportions, especially if your boss is nervy about allowing employees a longer leash. The line around working hours become blurred as the laptop turns into a permanent fixture on the dining room table (you alongside it), and you’re fortunate if you make it through the day without your children breaking something – a plate, a cup, the TV, a bone.

From the frazzled parent working from home to the woman selling pisang goreng by the side of the road, this is where the full strength of the KitaJagaKita hashtag needs to come into play. We do not only watch out for each other in terms of health, although that is certainly a main priority at the moment. Covid-19, which has killed over 600 in the country so far and more than two million worldwide, is no joke.

But neither are the hundreds of thousands struggling to get by both physically and mentally because of the pandemic and the various preventive measures which have taken a toll on their jobs as well. For some, these jobs have been taken away, and for others, they have been changed perhaps beyond recognition along with the environment in which their holders must continue to perform.

By all means, we should be free to express concern about the health situation in the country, especially with government hospitals pushed to the brink and private centres now roped in to help. But it does no good to focus only on one side of the problem without also taking into consideration all the rest. Calls for a lockdown need to be tempered with the acknowledegment that any move of the sort would be only a flawed solution to a situation with no win-win outcome for anyone. At best, locking down is simply the lesser of two evils although this too could be debated.

Those who are in a position to call for lockdowns with apparent impunity should count themselves fortunate. But any truly mature and inclusive society which claims KitaJagaKita as its tagline will understand that decisions of such magnitude are rarely if ever clear-cut and always prove Newton’s Third Law of provoking equal and opposition reactions.

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