Some facts, before I dive in:
Add to the above: Road rage, potholes, and the hell unleashed during annual monsoons. Not to mention what it does to poor, overworked traffic cops.
And we haven’t even got to the office yet.
There are few countries in the world that would benefit from increased remote working, more than India. The cost is not just physical or mental, but very much economic: congestion in India’s top 4 cities costs the country $22b annually, and road accidents cost it 5% of its GDP (for reference, India spends 3.89% of its GDP on healthcare).
Now, I understand that not all of our jobs can be magically made remote - manufacturing, agriculture, mining and healthcare still form a large chunk of our workforce and it will take a lot of time and tech catching up before we can do remote surgeries. But given that another large chunk of our workforce is service-led (IT, ITeS, finance, consulting, media), there is a massive opportunity to get a lot of people off the roads. What this will also mean is a better travel experience for those who do need to physically be present at work or need to use roads. Ambulances can move faster, daily wage workers can stay further away and save rent, police can get to crime sites quicker, and the delivery personnel who increasingly dot our roads can fulfil faster. People save on money, and businesses potentially save on increasingly prohibitive rentals.
One of my favourite podcasters, Amit Varma of The Seen & The Unseen, keeps stressing that India’s large population is not a liability but an opportunity. I agree with him - but all of them on the road at the same time present is a huge con. It shaves off a lot of otherwise productive time, burns unnecessary fuel (and adds to our imports), adds mental stress to a country underserved in this regard, increases pollution… And so on.
Even a partial implementation will have huge benefits. Why, even WFH for one day of the week - certainly attainable for several sectors - will achieve, at least in theory, 20% of the aforementioned benefits.
Why is why - as strange as it might seem to say this in the time of a pandemic - this is a golden opportunity we have right now to make Work From Home more of a standard. We cannot afford to let it slip.
We need to show our teams, bosses, organizations and clients that we can be as productive - if not more - working remotely. Step up productivity. Turn over stuff before deadlines. Hard work now will mean less time in a Mumbai local tomorrow and as a victim of Mumbai’s suburban rail for close to a decade, I cannot stress what a motivator that is.
It means joking about chilling, killing time and being bored less. While funny in the moment, each of those memes builds up a case that work can truly be achieved only in a formal office setting.
If it means going out of your way to help set up a concall or Zoom or taking a workshop - do it. Once the luddites realise how easy it is, there will be less reluctance to institute a WFH policy. Nothing kills the desire to work remotely more than the botched first five minutes of a video call.
Importantly, we need to use the time saved to think up new ideas and improve remote-working processes - driving home the fact that it’s actually more beneficial to the company if employees stay home and work with productivity rather than being stuck in traffic for two hours, or land up sweaty and tired.
Is WFH a panacea? Definitely not. In fact, there are several drawbacks (as you no doubt have experienced at some point over the last few days), and it will not work in all cases, even in the service sector. Some actually prefer working in an office, and meetings will be needed once in a while. But those are exceptions rather than the norm and processes can be set in place to obviate them (work from office on Monday and Thursday, for example).
Either way, with mandatory closure of offices for at least a few weeks in the offing, this is a great trial run for a WFH experiment at scale. It’s a true opportunity to make this a standard in a country that would vastly benefit if even 20% of people in its cities worked out of their homes. We cannot afford to squander it.
Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising till his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.
More columns by Deepak: