SOCIETY: THE PROFESSIONAL AT HOME

Published May 3, 2020
Composed by Saad Arifi
Composed by Saad Arifi

Twenty-six year-old Amna* has converted her bedroom in her in-laws’ house into a home office for herself. The bed serves as a makeshift workstation for the content writer. “Transitioning to a work-from-home routine was relatively smooth, but I am way too comfortable at home and that lowers my productivity,” says Amna, who works at an international digital agency based in Karachi with a staff of 50-60 people.

Now a month into the lockdown, while she manages to complete all her given work-related tasks, Amna says she still struggles to adjust to the new normal. “At an office, all our energies are focused on one task. But at home, there are a lot of distractions, such as the doorbell ringing or making tea for everyone,” she explains.

On February 26, Pakistan reported its first two cases of the coronavirus. As the numbers began escalating, on March 22, the chief minister of Sindh announced a partial lockdown across the province, allowing only essential goods-providing companies to work from warehouses or offices. Other provinces followed suit.

As professionals belonging to various industries were forced to work from home, workplaces in Pakistan and around the world are increasingly changing their work patterns. Since the situation remains uncertain, it is likely that more and more places will be forced to opt for work-from-home as the new normal. In Pakistan, only a meagre percentage of the workforce comprises those with white-collar jobs and even less of those who have the facilities to work from home, such as internet services. As per Pakistan Telecom Authority 35.9 percent of the country’s population (or around 76 million) are 3G/4G subscribers and 36.86 percent of the population (or around 78 million) have broadband internet — but this calculation for internet users does not take into account a single individual with two or more internet subscriptions.)

Moreover, a significant number of white-collar employees do not even have access to 24/7 electricity or personal computers at home. On the other hand, more than half of the population in Pakistan lives in joint-family systems, with little to no place in the house to work from. Working remotely comes with its own set of challenges even for those who have appropriate facilities at hand. So how are office-going professionals like Amna coping with setting up workstations at home and stepping around the various hurdles of working remotely?

With an increasing number of people being forced to work from home, how are companies and their employees adapting to the new regimen? And what impact can it have on labour rights and privacy?

DIGITALISATION IN PAKISTAN

One of the first few organisations that initiated work from home globally as a precautionary measure — even before the lockdown started in Pakistan — was a multinational consumer goods company. The corporation manufactures and markets household and pharmaceutical products and, across Pakistan, has about 450 permanent employees.

The organisation’s staff stays connected through technology. “With the support of our IT team, Skype for Business, Microsoft Team and similar applications, [we] ensure things continue as normal,” says Mahwish Mehmood*, the human resource director in Pakistan.

“As the HR department, we keep suggesting innovative ways of managing work from home while keeping in mind the importance of individual wellness,” says Mehmood.

Encouraging changing out of sleepwear to start the day fresh, keeping a check on one’s diet and vitamin intake, switching to video calls instead of audio to build a sense of closer connectivity, and even including family members in some of these videos to help uplift spirits, are some of the ways the organisation has helped its staff adapt to the new work routine.

Some companies took into consideration the resources their employees lack at home. Thirty-two-year-old Ahmed’s* company, a leading local conglomerate in Pakistan, also facilitated its employees accordingly upon the announcement of the lockdown. While certain incentives such as internet and phone charges were already provided for, other necessities such as official laptops were given to those employees who didn’t own personal computers at home.

Photos by White Star
Photos by White Star

“The management oversaw the needs of different departments and facilitated them in different ways,” Ahmed says. “For instance, the peons were also given a ration quota once the lockdown was imposed.”

While some upmarket corporations or businesses — both local and international — operating in the country may be trying to adapt to the changing needs, when it comes to adopting information and communication technology (ICT), Pakistan, as a whole, lags behind.

The World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index, also known as the Technology Readiness Index, measures the tendency of countries ready to exploit the opportunities provided by ICT. In its 2016 report, Pakistan ranked 110, while in the Digital Evolution Index 2017, the country ranked 56th and the size of its ICT industry was estimated at a mere 3.5 billion dollars.

Under these circumstances, fewer companies in Pakistan are open to employees working remotely. As a result, devising strategic work-from-home policies becomes difficult. But in an environment where companies have no choice but to implement them, small and medium enterprises are not the only ones struggling to cope. Bigger corporations too are pushing their employees to do more.

PROBLEMS OF PRIVACY

A 27-year-old working for a Karachi-based fashion and lifestyle brand says that her employer company has no respect for office hours. “All employees are expected to wake up and sign in to teams and mark their attendance at 8:30am, but time out is not being followed,” she says on the condition of anonymity. “There is absolutely no regard for a person needing time to do work around the house or help their family, considering househelp is also absent these days,” she adds.

Employees are not only faced with work pressures but threatened by the management of being fired in case their conditions are not met. A reason why almost all employees interviewed for the story requested anonymity was because of looming job insecurity despite government orders to employers to retain their staff.

If those employed want to stay, they have to follow conditions set by the companies, such as around-the-clock availability or concede to being monitored via installation of tracking software even on personal computer systems. This may end up making employees feel uncomfortable and resentful towards their employers. Forced to work from home, employees might feel pressured as the boundaries between work hours blur, with an expectation to be available 24/7. Employers may also exhibit the attitude that working from home is a luxury that the employees have been provided.

A young digital marketing executive at a software company tells Eos that employees were asked to install DeskTime once they started working from home. The time-tracking app enables employers to monitor what employees are doing on company time, and allows the management to take screenshots of staff members’ screens and access their webcam.

A young digital marketing executive at a software company tells Eos that employees were asked to install DeskTime once they started working from home. The time-tracking app enables employers to monitor what employees are doing on company time, and allows the management to take screenshots of staff members’ screens and access their webcam.

“Recently, an employee forgot to log out from the app after work hours ended,” says the 27-year-old executive, “and screenshots of their personal conversations ended up being circulated amongst the staff.” Rather than the company striving to resolve this breach of privacy, the employee was sent a warning notice instead.

To their further disadvantage, labour laws for white-collar workers are under-legislated in Pakistan. “There are laws that dictate working hours [eight hours per day] and give provisions for overtime work, but these are often made for blue-collar workers,” says Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation.

In these uncertain times, Dad suggests, employers should be following ‘best case’ practices and have an open discussion about working hours and conditions, and stick to the particular guidelines.

Photos by White Star
Photos by White Star

For example, Dad points out that any question about any tracking devices has to be addressed through the lens of consent. “Were employees consulted before the installation? How did employees respond? And lastly, did management take this decision on their own?” are few questions to ponder upon, she suggests.

Though there are no data protection laws in the country, Article 14 of the Constitution does ensure that the privacy of all citizens of Pakistan is protected, says Dad.

“However, for such instances [installation of tracking devices], a Data Protection Bill would serve as a more appropriate protection for employees,” she says. Tracking devices are an invasion of privacy as people’s activities are being traced — first by their employers and then by the makers of such devices, Dad adds.

However, some employers make an extra effort to look after the needs of their employees. According to Mehmood, her organisation gives all its employees 100 percent ownership of their projects and does not believe in keeping tabs on individuals on a regular basis.

Similarly, Ahmed too states that his company is making sure that it takes care of all its employees. “The owner of the company had sent a voice note on WhatsApp [following the lockdown] to all the employees, assuring them that no one will be laid off. That was very motivating,” he says.

Whether companies provide job security and facilitate staff or not becomes an internal policy matter. In an environment where employees feel vulnerable adhering to conditions imposed by their companies, what matters is whether any policies are being drafted at the government level to ensure protection of employees’ digital rights.

EMPLOYEE DIGITAL RIGHTS

The work from home situation is new in most countries across the globe. However, some countries have effective labour laws in place that protect their employees’ digital rights, whether they are working remotely or not.

For instance, Spain introduced a number of digital rights in its new Data Protection Act that was enacted on December 6, 2018. These include:

— The right to privacy in the use of technological devices at work

— The right to disconnect from work

— The right to privacy against the use of sound and video surveillance and geolocation technology.

“If we were to attempt to define what digital rights would look like [in Pakistan], the first thing we would do is maintain [conducive] working conditions for employees as they work remotely,” says Dad. These conditions would include employers ensuring that timings are adhered to and that communication is kept up between all concerned parties, and that the privacy of all employees is respected.

Moreover, Dad suggests that there is a need for a radical rethinking of how offices and employers operate with their employees. “Employers need to take their employees’ suggestions into serious consideration and get them all on one page, in terms of what working conditions will look like,” she says.

With the extension of the lockdown, organisations must learn from one another about how to adapt to a long-term work-from-home situation. For instance, the consumer goods multinational has launched an employee assistance programme which gives employees and their families’ access to a professional adviser for assistance in case of stress, anxiety, grief and financial troubles, amongst many other issues.

Amna shares that the digital agency she works for maintains uniform working hours, unlike others in the country. “We have also pushed some deadlines ahead and informed clients about possible delays as the environment we are currently working in is uncertain and stressful,” she says.

Dad stresses that the government needs to support employers by providing safe and stable internet access, and by laying the foundation for new, modern labour laws that are flexible enough to cover the ambit of working from home. “While we rethink the modern workspace and how organisations will adapt to ‘work from home’ changes,” she says, “it is equally important that the government and state institutions work on creating overarching labour and education policies that facilitate this move and also protect employees and their rights in such situations.”

In the wake of the pandemic, organisations and the government will have to rethink ways to make work more portable.


*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Nisma Chauhan is a multimedia journalist, who writes about cultural, social and gender issues. She tweets @ChauhanNisma

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 3rd, 2020

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