Are weekends now workdays?

COVID-19 has made 24x7 work engagement a ‘new normal’. Are fridays and saturdays falling prey to the rat race?

  
A mother working on a laptop in her office at home with her young daughter. Image used for illustrative purpose.

A mother working on a laptop in her office at home with her young daughter. Image used for illustrative purpose.

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One weekend, not too long ago, there was dinner at a friend’s place. He and his partner have this rule for all guests who drop by at their place: they need to drop their smartphones into a pretty-looking ceramic bowl laid out strategically next to their entrance. “No shop talk when we socialise” is their RSVP bar code. Another friend, an invitee like myself, refused to drop his phone into the catchment, claiming he has important work emails he has to attend to; those cannot wait — they have to be responded to immediately. “In fact, my boss will be discussing financials on WhatsApp through the evening... possibly into the wee hours.”

The hosts baulked for a bit. Then realised it would be a toss-up between the ‘officious’ one walking out altogether from the party and him simply being a party pooper. They decided on the latter. The moment the decision was taken, the others piped in saying they too needed their phones around them. While a few tittered that they wanted to check in on social media from time to time (probably to keep a tab on how many Likes their latest post on Facebook or Instagram — or whatever else people are on these days — is notching up), most others sighed, “Work is 24x7 these days — it’s gotten worse since the pandemic.”

The Financial Times ran a column by Sarah O’Connor recently, titled ‘We are creeping towards a continuous working week’, which dwells intuitively on the decapitation of the phenomenon popularly known as “work:life” balance. For decades, we have been debating this: how, as the world shrinks and yet corporate aspirations get inflated, it’s critical we do not lose sight of our personal lives by getting overwhelmed with “official” engagement.

The reality, on the other hand, is somewhat warped. The same people who advocate work:life balance, disengaging from technology (as much as possible), doing “portion control” on smartphone usage and cutting down on screen time, plan for 24x7 interaction with clients and colleagues. In the same breath.

The FT column ends on an almost chilling note — like the workplace aircon’s been pumped up to send shivers down your spine: “The disintegration of the old working week creates winners and losers. One of the stark divides in the post-pandemic world will be between those who can fit work around life, and those who must fit life around work.”

Right, so there you have one way of looking at it, like a throwback to Elon Musk ‘famous’ “No one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” But then, there’s also Jason Fried who said (on Twitter, no less): “If your company requires you to work nights and weekends, your company is broken. This is a managerial problem, not your problem.”

A company that ‘extended’ weekends

Dubai-based TishTash Marketing and Public Relations did something slightly odd a couple of months ago. As most of the working world went into overdrive to overcompensate for the Covid trial and its subsequent tribulations, this company introduced a new ‘work week’ — a four-and-a-half day one. Their weekend starts at 12.30pm on Thursday. Sharp. If you sent them an ‘official’ mail any time after 12.30 on a Thursday, this is the ‘Out of Office’ mail you will receive: “Our aim is to give team members more time to spend with family, focus on their own wellbeing and to just simply enjoy life! We ask our clients to stand with us in our goal. We will not be checking emails past 12.30pm on Thursdays, but we will of course respond on our return to the office on Sunday.” There’s a WhatsApp number given in case there is something “truly urgent”.

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, founder and CEO of TishTash, calls the move “life changing”. “We are now nine weeks into our new ‘working week’ that focuses on giving our team time and space away from their desks, in the midst of what has been one of the most difficult 18 months many of us have had to face. Phrases such as ‘balance’ and ‘burnout’ are permeating many offices, so it is our responsibility to protect and support our staff to ensure they not only do their best when at work but actually want to be here too.”

Natasha asked her team how they feel about this new way of working, and some of the key responses were: “I am more productive”, “I invest in myself and feel grateful for my flexible work place”, “I feel more full of ideas and creativity”, and “Come Sunday morning, I am excited to be back in the office”.

“In terms of impact to the business, we are in a phase of unparalleled growth — so we do think we’re doing something right and that ultimately comes from our team who are at the centre of all we do,” she says.

Don’t fear missing out

When Dubai-based social media strategist Deepti Umarani started out, she would attend to client calls/messages/emails during weekends and late nights because she knew no better. “I thought this is how it is done so I jumped immediately to reply to messages… I thought clients would love me for this. But this was not leading me anywhere: I was soon under huge stress and constant pressure, and had no quality time for myself and my family.”

That’s when Deepti realised she needs to set boundaries. “And stop making decisions out of fear — fear of losing the client, fear of losing the job, fear of not doing enough — and, instead, make empowered decisions.” Here’s how. One, communications are not done via WhatsApp, but over Voxer or Telegram. “This way, you will set boundaries for the apps — and you are not obliged to reply after 6pm.” Then, “always mention in the contract that anything sent after 6pm [unless it’s an emergency] will be addressed the next business day… if it’s a weekend, it will be addressed the next working day. Clients don’t expect immediate replies if you set the right boundaries.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, she reiterates “stop making decisions based out of fear: organisations need you as much as you need them.”

“The work culture has changed drastically no matter what industry you are in, leading people to automatically connect and work at odd hours and even the weekends — for the sheer fear of missing or losing out,” agrees Sharon Fernandes, a Dubai-based PR and marketing professional.

It is now a ‘perception’ that if you are not working 24x7, you are not a team player or not reliable enough. While it is important to give our 100 per cent, Sharon doesn’t believe that we cannot — or should not — switch off when needed. “My suggestion is pitch in during emergencies or when there is something really critical going on.” But we are humans at the end of the day, “working 24x7 will cause burnout and you could end up making more mistakes than being productive, and even affecting health and family”. Definitely not worth it, says Sharon.

Defining boundaries

“Judging by my email inbox and pings on WhatsApps, we’re all working from when we wake up until we sleep,” says Ananda Shakespeare of Shakespeare Communications. “And when you work internationally, like many of us do here, this doesn’t stop on a Friday. It is really hard to create boundaries between work and personal life.”

She’s a self-confessed workaholic so she needs to be even more particular when it comes to building in down-time. “I think we need to keep WhatsApps that are out of office hours for emergencies — anything else can be an email and picked up when that person is back to work. We all have to be mindful, including me, and switch off [from time to time and at pre-determined slots], it’s not healthy for us to have constant communication.”

Her workdays starts at 9am, so NO messages and emails before that — because it’s me-time for Ananda. “An hour of meditation, an hour at the gym, followed by reading the daily papers and having breakfast.” It’s a clear regimen, a ritual.

“Fridays are sacred, it’s my spiritual day — I fast and enjoy a slower pace, though I do, at times, tie up loose ends on Friday mornings.”

Saturday work-free, it’s a day to meet with friends. “If we’re not recharging over the weekend, I don’t think it’s good for our mental health. Finding balance is hard but you have to find ways that work for you.” Remember, “We should be working to live and not living to work!”

Arnab Ghosh is a marketing professional, a martial artist and a “passionate writer”, and it’s with a lot of passion that he claims he’s always been a great advocate of “work:life balance”.

He would never compromise on it himself, he says. “In today’s digital world, connectivity has become a double-edged sword. While people and information are always available at our fingertips, it has also led to expectations of people being available at all times. People expect quick response times. The boundary between work time and leisure time has certainly thinned.”

This has led to stress levels increasing. “People spend more time on the phone, often on social media, and less time on themselves to relax and unwind. Social media has become an arena of competition… for building one’s personal brand. Everyone wants to stay visible so that they can stay relevant. It is very important to slow down, and spend some quality time away from the digital rat race!”

Importance of prioritising

Ines Ben Rejeb Dardour, a media sales director who’s been living in Dubai for 15 years, points out how her work life has changed dramatically in the Covid aftermath. “During the pandemic, everything moved online, our only way to continue working was to be online… These days, I have WhatsApp work groups [that I didn’t have earlier], having them is part of our jobs, we share thoughts, notes and answer questions.” Earlier, “weekends used to be free, at the end of a Thursday, you’d be like khallas, but now weekends have become weekdays…”

Her job requires 24x7 engagement; she has to meet clients, answer emails at all odds times, and when there are events organised, she is often on duty after work hours and on weekends.

“See, I know my job is very important — especially after the pandemic and what happened in its wake. People are losing jobs — I was one of them, I lost my job last year and I was lucky enough to get a new one, so I’m really grateful, and I will not do anything that will endanger my career… but while I will work as hard as I can — to compete, to excel — I still consider my family [husband and three-and-a-half year old son] to be my number 1 priority, so no compromises there!”

The company she works for has been “great” in acknowledging her “priorities”: while she attends work events on weekends, she makes sure “my family is there with me”. And she makes a concerted effort to extricate free time, especially over weekends.

She has advice for those facing the short end of the stick. From across the world, she’s hearing stories of companies who are using the pandemic that, for want for a better word, are being exploitative. “Globally, many companies are using the pandemic to make employees work more, and are hiring at low salaries… but remember, as long as you are doing your job, you don’t have to be a slave.”

“Perform your duty, step up” as best as you can, Ines states, have that income that can give you a good life — but don’t ignore your family, because, after all, why are we working? “For them, no? If we put our family aside because of work, then what’s the use of working?”

But the glass can also be half full…

Sanjay Vazirani, chairman and managing director of the Foodlink Group, that has business interests in India and the UAE, has never “really” believed in keeping track of weekdays and weekends — and “it is in no way a recent trait but an old one” — since “it’s been my responsibility to grow my almost 1,000-member team that’s fast expanding across our new verticals and geographies.” The subtext is he has to make himself “available” for all that is expected of him, whatever time of the day, and whichever day of the week. “Technology has made it far easier for teams to collaborate even though they are miles away physically”, so Sanjay feels it’s a great enabler, not a disruptor.

More importantly, “working on a weekend is not something I have to do… I like to do it”. Having said that, “as a leader, I value and encourage work:life balance as much as I value hard work.”

Enrico Clementi, managing director of Tribe Creators, an F&B consultancy, falls in the league of those who feel the work:life imbalance is being exaggerated. “Personally, I don’t believe my work:life balance has been affected because of the pandemic: since I work with international clients, I was already used to doing conference calls or virtual meetings on a Friday, or working on projects over weekends because of a deadline.”

He does agree, however, that, overall, people have to be accessible all the time, more now than ever — but that doesn’t mean you cannot extrapolate me-time. “And I know a lot of people whose work:life balance has actually improved because of this [the pandemic]!

There’s a CEO who is based here, he used to travel a lot and was always ‘away’, but after Covid, his travels have almost been done away with. These days, he’s suddenly ‘based’ here with his family — so if you think about it, his work:life balance has drastically improved!”

 

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