Even a few months back, I didn't realise that work from home on a daily basis was possible. Of course, there were those days when I felt under the weather and decided to work from home—mostly coordinating with the reporting staff, instructing them on how to go about the urgent tasks in my absence. And it was mostly on the phone or messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp or Viber. Sometimes there were those Skype calls, absolutely on indispensable occasions. And oh boy, those days were tough coordinating with my team from home—there were so many things I had trouble explaining to them, such detailed instructions were needed, feedbacks, follow-ups and more feedbacks. And then there were those meetings where I had to send a team member on my behalf and then getting them to brief me the next day. And still, despite all these attempts, there was a lack of coordination somewhere. Working from home seemed like an absurd idea—is it even possible to work from home?
And then things changed, and pretty suddenly.
Even while watching the news on Al Jazeera of a mysterious disease claiming lives in a faraway town in China—it was late December I think—I did not realise that, a few months down the line, my life would be turned upside-down by this illness, and I would be scrambling to find meaning of what was happening around… all the chaos, commotion, change and then the calm of the shutdown. And not just me, Covid-19 has torn apart the social fabric in all the corners of the world. There is no longer the world that we once knew, that we called home. It is a different place now, a difficult navigation, and one that is often riddled with danger. And while Covid-19 has changed the society as we know it, its most visible impact will probably be at the workplace.
For one, we are not going to go back to the same workplace that we had left when we walked out of the office for the last time before the shutdown. It might not look so different but, in practice, it will be. When we go back to work, we will probably be wearing masks and gloves, if not PPE, and see stockpiles of hand sanitisers and disinfectants at every communal space. The offices will feel sterile thanks to all the deep cleaning that they have undergone. But while this might be good for my health, I am not sure how this will affect my emotional wellbeing.
And then, there will be no more handshakes or the occasional high-fives with colleagues after achieving small feats. Probably, there will be no more gossip over lunch at the cafeteria as social distancing will remain a key priority, of course to keep us safe. And we will sit spaces apart. We will fear contagion and our social interactions with our colleagues, co-workers and teams will be coloured by that tacit knowledge.
And for sure, there will be less meetings where we are required to be present physically, and even fewer foreign travels for workshops and trainings, because these will go fully virtual. If we can coordinate with cross-functional teams—both within and outside the country—at the height of the pandemic, then surely we can do it after things become "normal". And the less we travel for work, the lesser the possibility of contagion. And there will be fewer people we will meet, get to know, and it might feel less humane.
Amidst all these changes and uncertainties, there remains the fear of AI, robotics, IoT, automation taking over our work. We will always be on the look out to see who will be the first to go and then the next. Despite all the reassurances from our employers, the fear of being abandoned will linger like a foul smell in the air that no deep cleaning can get rid of.
According to a recent survey by a USA-based mental health provider, Ginger, nearly 7 in 10 employees surveyed suggested that this pandemic is the "most stressful time of their entire professional career, which has aligned with stark increases in new prescriptions of antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia medications," as reported by The American Journal of Managed Care.
And according to the World Health Organization, "In public mental health terms, the main psychological impact to date is elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But as new measures and impacts are introduced—especially quarantine and its effects on many people's usual activities, routines or livelihoods—levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise."
And while no one is immune to these spill-over effects of this pandemic—I, for one, fight my own demons every hour of every day, and try to stay positive by reminding myself of all the things I should be grateful for—the question is, does it really have to be this way? Certainly not.
If Covid-19 has been a frightening experience for us, it has also been a lesson at how fast we can adapt to changes and embrace transformations to stay relevant in the face of Herculean challenges. Look how we have changed the way we work, we look at work, overnight! What even a few weeks ago seemed like a dystopian, distant possibility, we are now living it, and what's more, we are even getting better at it.
While no doubt Covid-19 has caused a hollow in our lives, do we really have to succumb to its ill motive of sucking the lives out of us even while we are breathing? Of making us cold, sterile beings? Can we not train ourselves to turn around to get the better of this disease?
We can hone our creatives skills, leadership skills—skills that make us humans, help us survive in this ever-changing world. We can choose to embrace whatever human contact we are allowed even with social distancing and relish in that. There will certainly be losses, distances, and voids that will be difficult to fill. The worries, the qualms, the uncertainties are going to be around for the next few years, if not decades, and while these feelings can trigger depression and make us feel lonely and anxious, we can still win this game of survival, even against all the odds.
Covid-19 has certainly put us in a nightmare situation, both in our social lives and how we interact professionally. But it has also enabled us to see the bigger picture: of the ability of the humans to remain resilient, to be agile, to stay relevant.
It is up to us now how we want to utilise the limbo we find ourselves in. We can either choose to be proactively productive or do nothing and be bitter about it. The choice is really up to us.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.