I recently read a short story in which a fledgling writer is hectored every day by his wife to get a regular job. Busy with a novel which he knows will one day be a masterpiece, he sets out every morning in black suit and laptop in the pretense of work to one of the many office blocks in mid-town Manhattan. Striding confidently into vast open-plan offices, he locates empty work stations in different firms and sets to work on his novel amid a vast pool of changing employees – sometimes in a big accounting office, sometimes in an insurance company. People milling around him think he is part of temporary recruitment. If asked, he says that he is on deputation from the Chicago office, or some such believable lie. He knows the presence of new people is now an expectation in all companies that are dynamic, on the move, and use their staff with a stoic throw-away ambivalence.
The open-plan office of the 80s and 90s was the first indication of the irrelevance of most forms of office work, and it clearly stated that many such daily routines could be carried out without coordination or supervision. As long as there was a desk, and a person willing to sit idly for eight hours, looking busy, the company wouldn’t mind. So, needless to say, the failed writer moves about different offices, without raising suspicion. Thanks to Allied Insurance, Proctor and Gamble, and KPMG, he finishes his novel, and after a successful launch of his bestseller, even his wife takes him back.
The transition from open office to the home office was but the natural evolution of work-space. Once large companies realised that profits and company morale improved when employees – especially the ones who wore shiny black suits and carried their own laptops – didn’t need to be present at all, working from home not only made sense but introduced a level of useful lethargy that was missing in the presence of an intimidating boss. The comfortable familiarity of home ensured that some work could be attempted after lunch and before Netflix.
India, however, has always been a work from home culture. A traditional house in a small town often grew an outer appendage – a verandah to the street, a small shop, a tailoring unit. The practice of a paid skill outside, but quite literally connected to the family quarters ensured that the day was spent in some useful capacity, based on the commercial demand in the neighbourhood. Civic design at the time thus made no distinction between home and work, work and recreation, home and commerce. The daily tide of events – sleeping, eating, earning, spending and socializing – happened without architectural distinction and were happily dispersed in a single contiguous space called home.
In some minor way, today’s city seems to be returning to that order. Not because of an appreciation of the values inherent in tradition life, but for the hope of adding cohesion to the messy urbanity and unbridgeable divides in the city. People proceed from home to office, office to mall or market without the hope of finding any pleasurable or restful places in between, without possibilities of meaningful cultural or social exchange. They commute unhealthy distances (on average one hour in Delhi and Bengaluru, two in Mumbai) breathing the foul air of their own making. With so much time away from home, they even fail to recognize their own children (who are those two girls that eat with us on Sundays?).
When the experience of city life becomes its own casualty, could a more insular home and work life be the answer?