ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Reflections On the Future of Work

When Charles Handy’s The Future of Work was published in 1984, it created quite a sensation. Handy has been described as “prophetic” by his admirers, and his books on the nature of employment, the need for different forms of work following the disintegration of full-time employment and the possibilities that opened up for individuals as a result, have been much read and discussed. In fact, even decades later, The Future of Work and his other books remain sources of study. 

But even as Handy spoke of the impact of globalisation on forms of work, many would have found his assertions ominous and even frightening. Of course, much of what he said in that book seems to have come to pass. Technology has had an even greater impact than what was envisaged in the 1990s, and not always for the better.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—the ensuing restrictions and lockdowns and the stupendous havoc it has wreaked (and will continue to, in the years to come) in all aspects of life across the world—is something that Handy obviously could not have imagined. He had written about how large employment organisations which “had been day-time houses for so many people all their lives began to decline…,” how people would have to look at second and third careers, and about moonlighting in the face of full-time conventional jobs becoming scarce.

A number of management and human resources experts have already told us what the offices of the post-COVID pandemic world may look like and how people’s working lives are going to “change forever.” Much of it is, of course, speculative and based entirely on the present grim scenario. Many articles have cleverly adapted the forecasts of these Western experts to Indian situations. The obvious areas are the work-from-home scenario, 50% staff attendance on any given day, the absolute need for possession of technological knowledge and redundancy of those who do not have it, the concept of “space” as understood by Indian offices in prime urban areas, and so on.

Following World War II and the death of thousands of men therein, women took on many jobs and tasks that were hitherto closed to them. And despite the fact that they were paid less for the same work, women have continued to advance into more fields over the decades. This has perhaps been one of the irreversible (and positive) impacts of that devastating historical event.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect women in the organised workforce in Indian towns and cities? What impact will it have on their personal and professional lives and relationships? For many Indian women workers, the office is an escape from the tyranny of the patriarchal restrictions, especially those on meeting people who are not relatives and neighbours. The office is the site where a woman’s work offers her a chance to sharpen her skills, build expertise in teamwork, and generally be a part of a larger goal beyond the domestic walls.

The most significant factor is that articles about the post-COVID work scenario have referred mostly to corporate offices and an educated, white-collar workforce. Considering that 93% of India’s workforce is in the informal sector, the work-from-home scenario is hardly feasible for the majority of people. The location of work for a huge section of domestic labour is other people’s homes. Urban areas in India are witnessing a burgeoning gig economy, wherein workers do not always operate from offices. Even in urban offices, not every member of the staff has a personal computer or laptop at home. A vast majority of these people depends on computers and internet connections in their offices even for their personal work like bill payments, travel bookings, online shopping, etc. During the current crisis, the employee who has the ability to use technology from home or away from the office is much in demand. The questions that come to mind are: Will this mean that those who do not have technology access in their homes will be relegated to a lower grade/pay? What is the company/management’s responsibility to ensure that its employees are helped to upgrade their skills and also their access to technology? Experts have also predicted a breaking up or loosening of hierarchies in offices. It would be interesting to see how far this would hold true of Indian corporate setups where the patriarchal, even feudal social patterns from society are faithfully mirrored. 

Commuting for work in India, as in many other places, also involves “socialising” with fellow commuters, bonding over the long hours spent together. “Train friends” are a common feature and celebrations of personal milestones and festivals are also regular occurrences. Mumbai’s suburban commuter trains that carry lakhs of people daily also support an entire world of informal workers who hawk and sell everything from safety pins to fruits and vegetables, and also ready to wear garments and accessories. How will the “work” of this huge number change? 

As with the physical workspace, these modes of transport are sources of personal and professional interactions which contribute to productivity on both these fronts. These are areas where change may not necessarily be welcome.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view from the journal.

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