Employees are creatures of habit. We know what time to wake up so as to beat traffic and get to the office just before the boss breezes in oozing importance. Our work day is truncated into predictable segments; tea time, leak time, lunch time, snooze time, packing time.
By the time we clock out, we ensure that we have done something that we also commit to memory just in case the boss remembers to ask.
Similarly, we live our lives in cycles; getting paid every 30 days, spending the money in the first week, getting by for the next fortnight and by the 25th day, we will be desperately craving the next pay cheque the way some people we know crave charcoal stones.
Every three, six or 12 months, we will travel upcountry in rented cars, hoping to impress under-employed rural folk by demonstrating to them how disposable income got its name.
All is well in this little world that we have created. Until a major disruption like the coronavirus pandemic barges in uninvited and turns that little world upside down. Then we receive the call from the human resource manager — some organisations are now calling them people leaders — telling us we have to work from home for a fortnight to slow down the spread of the disease. And that is where our problems begin.
On the first day, we wake up and dress up, ready to work, only to realise that our desk that day is the dining table, and the family is using it for various activities, from enjoying breakfast to doing homework. Social distancing in your new office becomes impossible and you have to keep pushing your child’s cup further away from the keyboard.
Before you can settle in, it is time for the first Zoom meeting. You log in and realise everyone else has chosen the most beautiful part of their house for background.
One has set up next to the stairwell, so you know they live in a storied house. The other has an abstract painting behind them, so you know they are playing in a different league. You switch off when you realise the cabinet behind you has plastic cups and other dining accessories you have not used in a decade. You spend five minutes running around to find the ideal space that will say something positive about you, say, a certificate you won during music festival in high school.
Of course, these meetings are bogged down by interuptions. Your Wi-Fi is not stable, your husband decides to walk past in boxers, a child cries, the househelp drops a plate. And you realise all this time your microphone was not on mute, so all your colleagues are looking at you in consternation.
The meeting lasts the better part of an hour. Everyone is taking copious amounts of water in branded water bottles, others are sipping tea from exotic cups, and you are there wondering whether you have something to match the rest of the team.
At the end of the meeting, your colleagues with adorable munchkins will invite them on set to say hi and bye. Just then, your son shows up with porridge covering his face like a mask. You can’t smack them because you have been discussing how working from home has increased cases of domestic violence against women and children.
If you are a man and have to take instructions during the meeting, you have to keep addressing your boss as “Sir” or “Madam” and your spouse and children are shocked that you can be submissive. They feel like coming over to introduce themselves because they do not feel like they know the new you.
Of course, working from home means snacking from time to time. It also means the hair stylists are afraid of catching Covid-19, so they are staying away, especially from middle class homes which they believe are reeling under the weight of the disease that has a high affinity for travellers and the well-to-do.
On the fourteenth day, you take a look in the mirror and come across this guy with a flabby tummy and unkempt hair and for a moment, you wonder whether there is an obese stranger who has been living secretly in your house… until you recognise your saucepan ears and the pin drops.
On the day you return to work, two things hit you. First, you have to sanitise before you can use public transport, and you have to keep at it every so often throughout the day. You can’t cough without losing friends. Then you have to stay masked all day even if this means having mist on your glasses. Your colleagues will not even shake your hand. Everyone stays away from you.
Restaurants have stacked up seats, so you have to carry your food back to your desk. You suffer culture shock. At 2pm, you learn another sobering lesson; you have grown used to holding the computer mouse in your right hand and canned beer in the left. You can’t anymore. You are a worker. In a controlled environment. You have to shed your home personality and wear your work one. In the meantime, you have to send your social one on forced leave. There is no life in between work and home.
You are required to be indoors by 7 p.m. but are late by a few minutes. You show your employer’s letter to the police officer but he has been itching to use his whip on someone who can serve as an example to other like-minded miscreants who can’t observe curfew rules.
In the house, no one must know you have been whipped. You are the bread winner. Everyone must make sacrifices to beat coronavirus.