At the height of India’s coronavirus lockdown last month, an attorney seeking bail for a client in the western state of Rajasthan came up with a novel way to beat the scorching summer heat. He simply appeared before the judge in his undershirt during a hearing conducted from home by video conference.Incensed by the absence of any formal courtoom garb, the judge adjourned the case, reprimanding counsel for wearing a “baniyan” – the thin white, sleeveless vest meant to be worn as an undergarment.As workers worldwide wrestle with the norms of home video conferences — the de facto meeting rooms of the coronavirus era — tensions are running particularly high in India. The country has grappled with what’s essentially the world’s biggest quarantine after the government issued stringent rules that have kept its 1.3 billion people largely contained at home. Millions have to work out of modest, crowded houses, surrounded by all the chaos of multi-generational families. And they must contend with the unreliable internet services and power blackouts that plague many parts of the nation.
Meanwhile, many Indians have historically had little work-from-home experience. All that’s playing a role in bringing productivity to an all-time low as one of the world’s fastest-growing large economies hurtles towards a contraction.
These days, Corporate India’s morning stand-up meetings – conducted via video conferencing services like Zoom — are routinely interrupted by the piercingly-shrill whistle of the pressure cooker, the ubiquitous kitchen appliance that’s essential to Indian cooking. Meanwhile, a parade of relatives and broom-toting house help might wander across the frame in homes that include everyone from the in-laws to great grandparents.”The pressure cooker siren is the most routine annoyance during video calls,” said Shashidhar Sathyanarayan, co-founder of Iowa and Bangalore-based agritech startup Arnetta Technologies, who has been stuck in San Jose due to India’s travel restrictions. During formal meetings, his co-founders scurry into rooms with closed doors to prevent the screech of the kitchen appliance from disturbing their calls, he said. And his wife, also a technology executive, now ensures it’s never on during her meetings.
The smartphone is ubiquitous, but it’s also the very first personal computing device for a majority of Indians, and about half the country’s 500 million internet users have leapt into the digital world only in the last few years. They are simply unused to video conferencing apps and mostly muddle through, said Bangalore-based environment activist Surabhi Tomar.On a Zoom call last week for lake rejuvenation campaigners from across the country, she watched one of the participants struggle with the audio. Then, to the chagrin of nearly a dozen participants, he held the mobile phone close to his ear without turning off the video. “For the duration of the hour-long call, the rest of us peered into the hairy insides of his ear,” said Tomar. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
The trials of transitioning to this brave new world in India have reached even the top rungs of the corporate ladder. Large outsourcing providers like WNS Holdings Ltd. are providing etiquette training, schooling employees on basics such as dressing for video conferences, muting mikes and managing the background.Last week, during a virtual media conference to explain the impact of the lockdown on the Indian business and phone production at China’s Xiaomi Corp., India head Manu Jain suffered the embarrassment of repeatedly dropping off the call. Reappearing for the second time, Jain apologized for the power outage at his home. When he confessed to a similar situation at a recent video conference with the Xiaomi board, one reporter cheekily suggested in the Zoom chat box that he try a Mi powerbank, a portable battery pack sold by the company.
During the post-earnings leadership commentary of Indian outsourcer HCL Technologies Ltd., its global human resources head Apparao VV couldn’t make his video work. He soldiered on, speaking via audio, until he was able to get the video working. Minutes later, he gave out this ironic statistic: 100,000 HCL employees had successfully participated in 100 million hours of video conferencing during the pandemic.
Among those grappling with the virtual meetings are teachers, many of them older Indians struggling ineffectually to manage online classrooms filled with digital-native schoolgoers. And one of the most mortifying fallouts may have been felt by Byju’s, the online learning app that’s backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and other high-profile global investors. In a recording shared widely on the internet earlier this month, a Byju’s manager uses choice Hindi expletives to berate his sales executive for not completing a sale.Hundreds of people online castigated the startup. Byju’s has since announced that the manager has been “terminated”.
Not everyone is unhappy, and the latest requirements of workers have opened a new niche for entrepreneurs like Sawan Laddha. The founder and chief executive officer of co-working startup Workie, headquartered in Indore in central India, has pivoted to solving the work-from-home challenges of regular people.Workie supplies work tables, chairs and leases laptops and wifi routers. It installs battery back-up systems so work can continue through power outages. In the past weeks, Laddha has helped over 1,000 workers get up and running. He says demand is red hot for one particular item: Green screens that help block out messy living conditions from bosses, co-workers and clients. “In the next two years, we plan to set up a million Indians to work from home,” Laddha said.Meanwhile, a plea by the Bar Council of India, which represents the country’s lawyers, could offer a reprieve to vest-wearing attorneys. It’s called for Indian courts to ban video conferencing after the lockdown, saying advocates and judges are unaware of its nuances.
In a letter to the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, the chairman of the council said that if video conferences become a permanent fixture they could put most attorneys out of work and “more than 95% of the advocates of the country will become brief less and work less.”
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