A recent online meeting with an author began with his asking how our team has been managing without going to office. All of us said we were doing fine working from home, despite the initial hiccups. Then he asked the most significant question anybody has asked me in 2020 – if we are happy with the WFH arrangement , what is the need to ever go back?
An eerie silence followed for a couple of seconds, and then we all laughed. Someone said that since we were adapting every day, that was a good place to start. Like a batsman adapts to the conditions of the pitch and shapes his innings accordingly, we too must acclimatise ourselves to this new way of doing things from our living rooms, wearing unintentionally ripped boxers and sipping coffee which is not from the machine in the office pantry and hence doesn’t taste like death.
The key really is to set achievable personal targets while working from home so that one also has an understanding of how many of them have been realised at the end of each day, before one drifts into one’s own cocoon. However, without a self-rewarding system in place, it becomes increasingly arduous to maintain a routine which allows one to be adequately efficient while working from the comforts of one’s home. That reward could be a drink, PUBG, a new show on Netflix, Sinatra and Ravi Shankar, or simply ten hours of sound sleep.
‘But don’t you editors work in isolation anyway?’
It is said that editors work from their isolated dungeons with nothing but a manuscript, the track change tab and a bottle of gin for company. This is more or less true, but it doesn’t mean we don’t like to step out.We certainly do. We might hail a cab to meet a friend or two at a restaurant that looks unaffordable from the outside. We might spend hours emptying that bottle of gin, while trying to convince our friends all evening about why more people should be reading the book we are currently in love with. All the while, though, we’re waiting to go back to our dungeon.
Historically, offices have been spaces of camaraderie and teamwork, where we get to know our co-workers better – not just professionally but also personally. In publishing especially, this is critical because so much depends on the everyday chats and discussions we have, not only within an editorial team, but with other closely linked departments like marketing, publicity, and sales.
We read new submissions at home, or inside a closed cabin in the office, and even during metro rides, where it’s uncannily easy for someone like me to switch off from the outside world and immerse myself in the pages of a great submission. But not every member of the team might feel equally enthusiastic about a certain manuscript. Something which appeals greatly to me may not have the same effect on another colleague, whose point of view is as pertinent. All these opinions and arguments have to be on the table first for everyone to hear, before we reach a decision on whether or not to go ahead and publish what’s under discussion.
Several times in the past, our initial thoughts about a manuscript have altered significantly once our team members have met in person and heard each other out. When you open your mind to a diverse set of perspectives – whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, memoirs or essays – you are naturally able to look at a narrative through a wider lens. Even if one has been in the publishing business for some years, it’s virtually impossible for one to not bring in one’s individual taste, socioeconomic environment and personal politics while approaching a new text. This is exactly where multiple viewpoints help. But in the absence of a tangible office space, one is forced to have these conversations online once every couple of days at best.
Besides, one cannot simply walk into a senior member’s cabin anymore, to try to convince them why a certain book needs to be published. One can certainly pick up the phone and call them, but there’s a good possibility that you might find them in the middle of cooking rasam or rajma, or cleaning pigeon poop from the outdoor units of their air-conditioner, in which case the subsequent chat may not be really helpful in tilting the scales in your favour.
But these challenges also make the task more interesting by forcing us to resort to other methods, like writing long emails to each other to put our points across. Remember those things which existed before WhatsApp groups took over and everyone started talking in NSFWs and IRLs? We, of all people, must be able to rely on that age-old mechanism of typing and sending a letter. After all, we are, literally, in the business of words.
What if we never have to go to the office anymore?
Whether or not a vaccine is found soon, one must address the biggest elephant in the room right now. Not in your office conference room, which is probably locked currently, but in the virtual Zoom room where everyone is a legless bust smiling aimlessly at thirteen faces at the same time, like some modern day pre-apocalyptic version of The Last Supper. The implicit thread of trust which always existed between people sharing a workspace has been broken, at least for the next few years.
The conversations around the water-cooler, the shared lunches, the drinks after work – even if these things make a comeback in our lives, they’ll bring with them an inevitable sense of doubt. The very idea of a safe space has been challenged by this pandemic, and as many health experts world over are predicting, this virus is here to stay in one form or another.This breach of trust, caused by a uniquely external factor, may exasperate us, but it still means that we are going to feel safest working from secluded spaces.
To those who never tire of asking, “But eventually we’ll all have to go back to the office, so why not today?”, here’s a small reminder: Eventually we’re all going to die too, but it doesn’t have to be today. I know several people who have had to rejoin work. My landlord, who works in a government office told me recently (over the phone), that he isn’t even getting Sundays off these days.
The technology sector, I hear, has largely gone remote, but restaurant workers have gone back to work. I have heard our sales managers say that they need to assemble at the office every once in a while to function better. In sales, whether in publishing or elsewhere, personal equations between sales managers/representatives and distributors/retailers is everything. In such a scenario, it’s understandable that they have to step out of their homes and make these trips, at least within the city where they are based.
In our office, the finance team has already been meeting once every week for over a month now. And surely they aren’t doing this to derive any particular joy out of the moment, and are striving like the rest to ensure that they don’t catch the virus during these official outings.
No, this is not the new normal
But as much as I enjoy meeting an author over a cup of coffee or the occasional beer to discuss a new book idea at a cafeteria or a bar in the SDA Market, it’s a thought that needs to be quashed and thrown out of the window right now. I’m terrible with phone calls, but I find myself making more frequent calls to authors and agents now than I have done ever before. The existence of texts helps too, of course.
If things start looking up, maybe I’ll ask an author who lives close by to meet me at a neighbourhood park where we can take a socially distanced walk to talk about a new project. We might be louder than we usually are, but our heads will produce clearer thoughts as well.
I have already started muting people who are still tossing around the phrase “new normal”, because nothing about this situation is normal. But then, nobody promised us normal. We assumed that just because we lived life a certain way, it would stay that way. We took for granted what wasn’t ours to begin with.
But whatever the near-future holds, it’s certainly going to be filled with newness. Even if all offices are opened, there are bound to be a thousand regulations in place – the number of employees who are allowed to be in that office on a given day, de-clustered seating cubicles, multiple sanitising stations, ample stocks of masks and gloves at all times (which we’ll be required to wear the entire time we are in that space).
Using the printer will be a nightmare, those with diabetes or asthma will definitely have to stop using elevators, and even the simple act of drinking water from a colleague’s bottle might be prohibited. Of course, this is assuming we’ll all have a safe and risk-free way of travelling to work and back. The entire physical layout of offices might change and even make us feel like we have entered a haunted house where a benevolent spirit has mischievously displaced everything we held dear there.
The energy of a non-toxic office space is truly irreplaceable. Imagine The Office with only half the characters in it; imagine that same world without a Kevin or a Phyllis or a Stanley. What an utterly drab place it would be. Similarly, every office needs (and usually has) its own unique set of characters who help create an environment which makes us all believe that we are part of something significant. But the world is asking us for slowness now.
Derek Thompson, staff writer at The Atlantic wrote in March, “Allowing people to work closer to home – whether at a coffee shop, in a co-working space, or on a couch – could be a win for work-life balance, for happiness, and for the biosphere.” It won’t be incorrect to say that things have gone downhill since then, at least in our country. The harsh realities of today – of rising patient counts and of the quarantined, of heartbreaking deaths across the country — are hardly conducive to a relaxed atmosphere at work for everyone. Until it is, though, the kitchen table will have to suffice as a work desk.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.