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Distant Voices and Stilled Lives

Stay at home and work from home ensured we lost real connections. But are we getting so used to the new normal that we’ve started enjoying living in a silo?


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 12 Mar 2021, 7:23 PM

The penny dropped while checking out an apartment to rent. It was in Downtown, next to the Dubai Opera, where the chords had fallen silent, temporarily, during lockdown. “When you have guests over, they can park in the opera parking,” the real estate agent earnestly pitched, trying to make a case for commission.

“I don’t believe I will be having guests over — in a long, long time,” I said on reflex, deciding in that epiphanic split second that perhaps I’d be better off in a hotel apartment where I won’t have to “apply” for DEWA, Wi-Fi connections and pay an annual security deposit; and where, with some luck, there will be on-the-house housekeeping thrown in.

A few days later saw me signing a lease at a hotel apartment for monthly stays. “The tenant will not be permitted to hold house parties” — one of the clauses stated. Not because of Covid, but because other guests might be disturbed.

I actually heaved a silent sigh of relief while signing off on the dotted line.

There, I now had my bottom line: I don’t want to have people coming over to my place, unless absolutely essential.

I’m not “used to” fraternising anymore.

In my earlier stint in Dubai, when we all inhabited an aeon that is, these days, referred to as pre-Covid, inviting people over every other weekend was my forte. That apart, friends and colleagues would gather together at the drop of a hat at my place since I rather enjoyed playing impromptu hostess.

But something changed over lockdown and the hazy period, a grey area, that followed. I was in Delhi at the time, and whenever anyone asked, “How’s Delhi treating you?”, I’d say, “No idea, I’m at home, I hardly get to see the city”, and not even experience a tiny twinge of FOMO. I’d thought it would be tough to give natural instincts a bypass all because a sneaky virus had decided to drop into Planet Earth, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy.

It sank in midway around last year that I was quite alright steering clear of socialising and had settled into the work-from-home groove nice and snug. During the time I wasn’t “working”, I was gainfully occupied with cooking, Candy Crush (the whole gamut), developing fetishes for crime serials (on OTT) and online shopping, and being constantly amazed at how quickly time was flying by.

In Delhi, there used to be — and in Dubai there still are — frequent WhatsApp chats on meeting up. A girls’ night out with masks and protocols in place, or a weekend brunch, or a get-together to binge-watch a new Netflix series sitting two metres away from each other. Those talks would taper off, with none of the prospective participants, me included, showing much intent subsequently.

“2020’s been great for me,” a former colleague told me excitedly. “I’ve been working from home for almost a year now, no going to office, no meeting colleagues and no being forced to do small talk.” It’s had a trickledown effect at a personal level: she’s stopped going out almost entirely, and taken to gardening, learning how to make chocolate soufflé (“from scratch”) and catching up with her reading.

“It’s great! I have found my place in the sun.”

Another friend, a banker, is having to go to work every now and then, and says he gotten into the habit of sitting by himself in his cabin that overlooks the SZR skyline. “Earlier, I used to like attending meetings, now I get annoyed when my boss calls me to his room.” He’s meeting clients (mostly) virtually and not looking forward to a time when social distancing norms are removed, and he has to go back to square one of meeting them in person. “I really hope they are kept in place for some time, I’m loving this ‘distance’ from people.”

“I think the pandemic is changing my personality and I’m concerned,” feels Ananda Shakespeare, founder and CEO, Shakespeare Communications. She no longer wants to go out in the evenings and has gotten used to reading and films at night. “People are scared to go out and are limiting the amount of contact they have for obvious reasons. I follow the UAE rules. I think many people feel like me and don’t know how we will find adjusting to our old way of life after the pandemic.” Pause. Then, “Or whether we will at all. Perhaps we’ll all become more insular, which is a worrying thought.”

The WFH way of life

A recent study by Pew Research had a startling finding. Almost 90 per cent of those who worked from home during Covid do not

want to return to “the office” even when it’s safe. (The study was conducted in the US, but obviously applies to all ‘global’ citizens.)

There has clearly been a paradigm shift: a lot of folks are feeling happier using the dining table or the kitchen one — whichever is more ergonomical — to thrash out company reports or crunch numbers instead of cultivating team spirit in the conference room over high fives, and cookies and coffee.

In an article on marketplace.org (by Samantha Fields), Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics is quoted as saying: “We’ve reached the tipping point where there’s enough [number of] companies that are going to be offering it [work from home], that if you’re a company that doesn’t offer it or allow it, you’re simply not going to be able to hold on to your people or attract the best talent.” The same piece has Justin Draeger, who runs National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators — a nonprofit in Washington DC — point out: “This idea of being in the office five days a week, I think, is a bygone era for companies that have successfully moved to telework.”

Dubai-based Hamoodi Hreib recently started HAMnAM, a creative consultancy with a friend, and one wouldn’t have been wrong to assume he’d be desperate to be in the thick of things, connecting face to face, shaking hands. But no. “We do still do physical meetings when introducing ourselves to prospective clients but once they get used to us, we do Zoom, and I personally find it more productive to Zoom.”

He loves working from home. “Honestly, it’s so much easier: I can focus on work, I can work as and when I need to without constant ‘official’ interruptions and unnecessary meetings. I now realise so much of the day at work is wasted.”

As Hamoodi consciously tries to minimise real contact, he doesn’t believe it’s leading to any kind of disconnect: in fact, he claims he’s found clarity. “It’s only now that I’ve discovered who my true friends are, the ones who regardless of not being able to meet up physically stay in touch.” They plan games nights, exchange recipes, sharing photos of what they cook. “These are people who check up on each other and make fun of themselves just to cheer you up.”

His 13-year-old daughter Allegra, who’s kind of wise beyond her years, states “Even before Covid, I liked my own space, so it’s not been such a drastic change in my life.” On the contrary, “I feel I have a stronger relationship with my family being at home. We do a lot of things together. But I also do need and miss the space I had before, and I miss being with other kids.”

With Ananda, it’s been a different narrative. All her life, she’s never been a work from home type. “I love to have somewhere to be in the morning,” she maintains. “I like a goal and a bit of a routine to maintain discipline. However, having it enforced on me, I did initially enjoy it. Instead of spending the day dashing from one meeting to the next and catching up with work in the evening. I found video calls saved time, petrol, no stress of finding a new location, a parking space etc.”

When the UAE went into lockdown mode for three weeks around March/April last year, she needed to create a routine at home to cope with it mentally. “Work was 9am to 6pm instead of 8am to 10pm. And evenings were for recreation. When you’re cooped up inside a flat, it is useful to have a schedule or at least it was for me. Weekends became recreational as well; instead of working a lot, I watched films, went to the supermarket, called friends, read books etc.”

Over time, however, Ananda craved for her old life. “Living alone and only seeing a friend at the weekend is not enough human contact for me and after a year of this, I’m frustrated. Everyone had a different personality, I’m an extrovert, so I’m a people person and am fed up with video calls and the lack of physical networking events.”

Before the pandemic, she ran two community events: a meet-up for vegans and a media gathering. “Not running these events impacts the amount of joy I have in my life. I love bringing people together and resent being told to live my social life virtually as well as my work life.”

‘Finding meaning in stillness’

A former Dubai-based consultant, who moved to Shanghai much before the word Covid19 was formed and uttered, has been doing work from home for a while — even before WFH became pandemic fallout. She was already well set, but observed “some of my friends and colleagues struggling to shift to this new way of working — particularly those who derive their energy from connecting with others”.

In her case, there’s been an inverse flip. “Strangely, thanks to Covid, I actually got connected with friends and colleagues

who, in normal circumstances, I had not heard from in years. It was a collective vulnerability which I think brought about

this connectivity.”

When I tell my former colleague, the one who’s not attended office for a year, of the silver linings the likes of Hamoodi and Allegra have identified, she offers, “Oh, good for them, but it’s played out differently for me: I feel more self-contained than ever, and I do not make any extra effort to seek out ‘true’ friends because I don’t feel the need. In fact, I get irritated whenever family members, on group chats, complain about feeling isolated. I tell them to repurpose their lives, find new meanings in stillness. They don’t buy it. As they say, different strokes for different folks.”

If the notion of ‘finding meaning’ can be an extrapolation, then Hamoodi probably has hit home. “Before Covid, we, as a family had drifted apart.” Their hectic lives had got in the way. “Now, we’ve rediscovered how much we enjoy spending time together, working/studying, playing games — we are a very competitive family! — and cooking. It has given me a second chance to appreciate my family as a whole and cherish the time.”

The reverse rings true as well. A friend discovered she hates her life with her domestic partner when there is stay at home and work from home involved. “I’m toying with the idea of calling it [the relationship] off, we just don’t click as a couple while in containment.” She doesn’t view it as a bad thing. “The façade of social norms blanks out fissures; with them out of the way, you see a spade as it’s supposed to be seen.”

Hamoodi has discovered quality trumps quantity. “It’s crazy how so many people you considered your friends and hung out with are suddenly nothing without the social surroundings. You realise you had nothing in common but the need to be out and about.” Before the pandemic, “we were going out all the time, always afraid of missing out on something. This new life has forced us all to stop and take a look at what is really important.”

#StayAtHome and #WorkFromHome are not buzzwords that have emerged out of a troubled time to create an eco-system, Hamoodi adds.

He considers them a rebooting of “us humans”.

In my case, I’ve been spending considerable portions of weekends in silence, staring at my perfect kitchen, its straight lines and its exquisite edges, wondering if I should make good use of it rustle up a meal for one — or simply order in.

It’s in the stillness of things — and being — that I’ve discovered solitary splendour.


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