This article was first published in Deccan Herald. Views are personal.
We are so far into this pandemic that I, along with most people around me, seem to have forgotten what the world looked like before the apocalypse. The Seth household (like a lot of other people) is pretty dependent on Netflix and Amazon Prime for entertainment. Every so often, while binging a TV show, we come across a scene that seems like it belongs in a different reality. Last week, while streaming The Office, I found it hard to imagine working from a common shared space with my colleagues.
I have commuted to and from offices for most of my professional life and have sat in more meetings than I can count. Meetings are one thing I do not miss from before the pandemic. When in an office, meetings can stretch for hours on end. Sometimes they serve as a direct proxy to how productive your colleagues perceive you to be. They also required you to be physically present with your expressions visible and did not leave a lot of scope for you to get other work done.
I distinctly remember a colleague saying to me in Delhi’s scorching heat, “Hum log office kaam karne ke liye nahi aate, meetings karne ke liye aate hain. Kaam to ghar pe karna hota hai” (We don’t come to the office to work, we come here to attend meetings. You are supposed to get work done on your own time).
Enter 2020, and the world was thrust into the largest work from home experiment in the history of civilisation. Commutes became non-existent, and meetings became long conference calls on Zoom and MS Teams. You no longer had to drop everything to attend meetings, no longer had to show your face and expressions to colleagues throughout, could turn cameras and mics off, and perhaps most importantly, work in the background until someone called your name.
Working from home during the pandemic, the new meeting culture has given me more control over my schedule. This made me question whether I was the only one going through this transition. Thankfully, research by the Harvard Business Review was able to provide me with some answers. (A slight caveat here; the data used in the study is from 2013 and 2020, but it has not explicitly not focused on India, and while I do not think it undermines its application, we should take it with a pinch of salt).
The pandemic seems to be a net positive for knowledge workers. We are spending 12% less time being drawn into meetings and participating in 50% more activities through personal choice. The number of tasks rated as tiresome has also dropped from 27%-12%, meaning we are picking our battles better. This also means that on the flip side, we are finding it harder to start new initiatives or focus on personal development. In short, we have more control over our calendars and the message from knowledge workers here seems to be, “Stop! Stop! It hurts so good”.
As with so many things from the pandemic, I hope that we take our learnings from this experience into our future. When I read about the future of work, many people talk in binaries of 0s and 1s on whether we will go back to offices or continue to work from home. I do not claim to know the answer. What I do know, however, is that we seem to prefer the current arrangement of meetings over the previous status quo. And if there is one thing we should take into our post-pandemic future of work, it is that people be given more freedom on how to use their time, starting with meetings.