‘Hospital-like’ meetings, temp checks, making tea — Govt back in old offices but new work life

‘Hospital-like’ meetings, temp checks, making tea — Govt back in old offices but new work life

Central ministries opened Monday, with all senior officials returning to office after nearly a month of working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown.

File image of North Block in New Delhi, which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs | Photo: Bloomberg

File image of North Block in New Delhi, which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs | Bloomberg

New Delhi: The central government offices sprang back to action Monday, albeit slowly, after almost a month of working from home due to the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.

All personnel ranked as deputy secretary and above returned to ministerial offices while ministers and senior bureaucrats had already begun attending office last week. Of those ranking below the deputy secretary level, only 33 per cent of staff are expected in office.

But it wasn’t “work as usual” for those back in office. To start with, every office checked the body temperature of employees and had them sanitise their hands at the entry gate.

All employees were made to wear face masks, some even had gloves on, and everyone kept to their respective rooms. Doors to cabins of senior officers were kept ajar to avoid having to use the door knob while the ubiquitous hardbound government files were given a miss in most offices.

Also read: Work from home, more sick leaves, no visitors: How Modi govt is keeping staff COVID 19-free

‘Surreal’ work life

Talking to ThePrint, many officials joked about how the Covid-19 outbreak might have succeeded in doing something that was unthinkable before — usher in a new work culture to government offices.

Discussions on important issues happened on newly formed WhatsApp groups or on phone calls. Instead of making notes on paper files, officials used e-mail. In some cases, physical meetings were held in conference rooms with only senior officers in central ministries. The meetings, though, followed new protocol, several officials told ThePrint.

A senior railways ministry official described the experience as “surreal”.

“The conference room had the feel of an operation theatre. All officers wore masks and sat at a distance from each other. One of our colleagues was wearing gloves … We all brought our own pen and paper. Nobody touched anything. No tea, coffee or snacks were served. At times it was difficult to understand what the other offiicial was saying with the face mask on,” said the official who did not want to be named.

A director-level officer in the shipping ministry said that he was pleasantly surprised to see a majority of the staff, irrespective of their seniority, taking the stairs instead of using the elevator.

“Everybody was conscious not to brush past another in a hurry while climbing stairs. The few who took the lift, waited in the queue, ensuring that just three people went in at a time. Such discipline and courteousness is rarely seen in government offices,” the official said.

Also read: Not a win-win situation — why we should not work from home after the Covid-19 lockdown

Lifestyle changes in govt offices

Officials have been instructed to eat in small batches in the pantry, use the stairs instead of lifts and to strictly maintain a gap of at least one meter or three feet — a social distancing measure, among other basic things.

“The discipline with which the instructions are being followed by most is encouraging,” the railway official quoted above said.

Another stark difference from earlier times, some officials said, was the near-empty corridors of government offices. People have been careful to avoid crowding any area in the building.

“Earlier, it was usual to see junior staff moving in groups around lunch time and gossiping in the corridors. That has stopped. I hope the culture stays,” an official in the Shram Shakti Bhawan, which houses the labour and Jal Shakti ministry, said.

Other changes, more prominent for senior officials, include the small tasks they need to do instead of relying on other staff.

“I drove my own car, for example … There are no office boys also, so most people are making their own tea, picking up their own bags, and serving their own lunch,” a director level official in one of the ministries said.

“Even the officers don’t want to come in contact with people as much as possible. So mostly, they are doing their own work for a change,” the officer said.

All offices, however, are adhering to the strict protocols issued by their respective ministries to maintain hygiene. A road ministry official said the sanitation staff goes to every room every few hours to disinfect it and clean the door knobs and handles.

Entry of visitors including journalists to all ministries is being discouraged, while routine issue of visitors/temporary passes remain suspended.

“Only those visitors with proper permission of the officer, whom they want to meet, are being allowed in after proper screening,” said a housing ministry official.

Also read: Juggling e-files & family — how WFH, Covid-19 changed life for govt’s science, tech officers

Divided staff strength

While staff above the deputy secretary level returned at 100 per cent strength, only one-third of the lower staff has been attending office as per the government orders.

“Rosters have been made for lower staff, and at a time, only one-third of them are coming to work,” said an Income Tax officer on the condition of anonymity. “Most drivers, etc. have their own private bikes, so they are managing to come to work on bikes and pick up senior officials,” the officer added.

However, despite advisories and instructions from the government, some officials said that working at 100 per cent strength is risky and unnecessary.

“You cannot avoid putting yourself at risk when you are in the lift, washroom, corridor, etc.,” said an official. “Especially when you know so many people are asymptomatic, what is the point of calling everyone at once?”

Ministries and departments have also been instructed to arrange special transportation facilities for those who do not have their own vehicle or travel from a distance. Some ministries have started car pool facilities. “But strict protocol is followed to carry only two staff at a time,” the shipping ministry official said.

A secretary level official in one of the infrastructure ministries said that they are maintaining a strict vigil to ensure that rules are being followed. “We are taking feedback from our staff and making changes to our processes, if required,” the secretary said.

Also read: Central govt staff can work from home during lockdown, but will have to follow these rules