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Utopia, out of office

What God's Own Office advocates - work from home - is already the emerging reality around us, as technology enables a new economy to take shape

Vikram Johri 

How One Man Worked for a Global Giant from His Village in Kerala
James Joseph

Penguin; 191 pages; Rs 399

There is a passage in Amitava Kumar's biography of Patna, A Matter of Rats, that explains why nurses play the radio all night in the city's hospitals. "This is to prevent rats from nibbling at their feet," explains Mr Kumar nonchalantly in what is one of a series of harrowing anecdotes about the rat menace in Bihar's capital.

James Joseph, the writer of the book under review, has likely not read Mr Kumar's book. If he had, he would be less taken with evangelising the call of the native village after one has spent years crossing continents. To be fair, Mr Joseph is from verdant Kerala, a decidedly far cry from Bihar's rodent country.

Even so, that little detail both makes and mars God's Own Office. True, Mr Joseph speaks for many when he draws attention to the tug of war between work and family that professionals face. But his book, which purports to be a universal tell-all about life and work and the intermittent connections we try and forge between the two, is little more than an insular look at the information technology sector.

Here's his story. After starting out from a small village in Kerala, Mr Joseph rose to become a director at Microsoft. The book traces his journey back home - to finding opportunities not in rising India but in the hinterland, where technology has enabled a work environment that was unthinkable even a few years ago.

The book, which will tug at the heartstrings of any non-resident Indian rooting for home, does offer practical tips on returning. Mr Joseph acknowledges that his idea of moving to Aluva near Kochi found few takers when he first talked about it. That he succeeded is in no small measure to the company that he worked for, Microsoft, which not only let him move to a nondescript hamlet but also awarded him the Circle of Excellent Award, aka Microsoft's in-house "Oscar", three years later.

What enabled the shift was his family's unstinting support, especially that of his wife, who, as a doctor, wanted to practice in a state whose language she understood. That Mr Joseph's daughters also favoured living in the midst of lush greenery, away from the din of the city, helped tip the scales.

In his endeavour to make this a representative self-help guide, Mr Joseph diligently ticks every concern around working from home and provides detailed answers. Working from home, he concedes, requires tremendous discipline, particularly when one has (as he did) three young girls who know that dad is in the next room. To counter this, Mr Joseph recommends creating a sound-proof, technology-enabled zone that lets you do all your work from the comfort of your chair. From instant messaging to video conferencing, Mr Joseph ensured that all the contraptions of office life were in place before he started. Besides, since there is no information technology department to blame poor connectivity on, he advises sufficient backups.

Indeed what Mr Joseph advocates is already the emerging reality around us, as technology enables a new economy to take shape. Don't come to office, we hear big banks command their employees as Mumbai's high realty costs cut them deep. Information technology firms in Bangalore allow women employees to work some days from home, provided they remain connected.

But Mr Joseph's tendency to universalise the particular extends to the nifty way he believes anyone with the right heart and a helpful employer can undertake what he did. While telecommuting may have its advantages, some sectors, newspaper journalism, say, cannot adopt a work-from-home model.

When I had trouble with a boss at a former employer, I requested my senior editor to let me work from home. No way, he said. He had his reasons. When the pages of the newspaper are "released" (news-speak for "sent to the printer"), it wouldn't be far off the mark to describe the scene as "instructed haste", a term otherwise reserved for the onerous task of extricating miners trapped underground.

Articles pass around on email, printouts rush over to "design", detailed instructions reach the illustrator, data swim over to the graphics expert. The room is alive with the possibilities of whatever will emerge on the page. It's the same old, same old but it's also new and fresh and vigorously impermanent ("Kill the anchor! Breaking news just in!").

A Matter of Rats drips with Mr Kumar's nostalgia for a lost Patna. Even so, the writer continues to teach in New York. You can't run journalism from home, and you can only allow nostalgia when you are away from the thing that induces it.

First Published: Tue, October 21 2014. 21:25 IST