perils of a digital agency job

Disclaimer: Views are strictly personal.

I have been with a digital agency working chiefly out of a computer for more than four years now. And over these years I have observed a few problems associated with my job. Problems that I thought were isolated and singular in effect because I also lead an unhealthy life in general. But it is during a recent chat with a colleague that I got a first-hand confirmation that these issues may not be too unusual, especially if we consider the state of such fast-paced jobs in a country like India where STEM graduates looking for engagement are popularly lured to the digital world with the promise of an easy passage.

And then I talked to a few more people in my tiny professional network to feed credence to my thoughts and ultimately shape them into words. Here they are. Although not exactly confirmed by science that they emerge out of a digital job, these problems are enough to take note of and then perform corrections, if any.

A Slight Slouch

I am an account manager at a performance marketing agency and most people I know who hold a similar designation carry a laptop with them. This is to allow free movement between agency offices and client offices. And it works well. But none of them carry a laptop stand that would elevate the laptop screen to eye level thereby helping them maintain their posture, the right posture for a desk job. About 30-35 hours of work, week after week, and four years later, with little exercise added to the mix, I am confident the slight slouch that I now sport is because of this digital job.

Some people with a laptop instead of a workstation do use a laptop stand while they are on their desk but I am yet to see them carry it around. When you are collaborating at an agency-level with fellow team members and teams from other verticals, the stand – much like the charger – acts as an obstruction. This is not even considering the need of a wireless keyboard (along with a mouse) because typing while your laptop is sitting on an elevated throne is cumbersome. Because now your hands are elevated too and the pressure on your shoulders is massive.

I occasionally sit out of a client office and these days have been moving around a lot. So, even if I were to carry a stand with me everywhere I go, I can’t vouch for its safety. For people who move around a lot – managers and directors in the account and client servicing fields – a laptop stand is, therefore, not a solution. You must instead start embracing the slouch or take giraffe lessons in your free time.

But then there’s a bigger evil that covers almost everyone in the digital profession: chairs. A more precise word: space. With so many digital agencies mushrooming in Mumbai and elsewhere in India, existing agencies evolving and strengthening into the Big Five (or is it Big Six now with Accenture coming in with Droga5), and real estate prices refusing to budge, the industry is finding it difficult to accommodate people that its children are hiring. Every year there’s a new batch of fresh talent coming in but no one has any idea where to settle them. Eventually, they are asked to cram with the existing workforce until some new space is either bought or madeshift from a sister or partner concern that occupies abode in the same highrise because of a diktat by the holding company.

The lack of space or rooms in a digital agency is such a familiar concept I would even go ahead and say it makes all of us in the digital fraternity a big, fat family of meeting room grabbers and last-minute meeting cancellors because Manoj from Administration struck your name from the register as that newly-created 70-member team needs to gather for a quick internal meeting which is obviously more important than your call with the client to discuss trivial matters related to the half-dead campaign.

(If this concept seems unfamiliar to you, may I ask you to book a room for five people next Monday for a conference call at noon and then confidently say that the room will be vacant when I show up?)

The point is that a lack of space, or cramming as a result, forces people to work out of unusual, unhealthy places: couches, bean bags, cafeteria, stairs, or the carpeted floor. And this seriously affects their posture, even more adversely than the absence of a laptop stand does to a business manager trying to close a six-month purchase order with a perennially busy client. Of course, the talent pool in any agency is dynamic and is forever free-flowing but when there are no real spaces to keep your laptop and work on it with an upright posture it turns into a problem, especially when you are a traveling digital nomad with no designated desk. Hunching spine, stooping neck, and occasional carpal tunnel – how much more damage can you ask for?

In my nearly three decades as a person, I am yet to find a chair that’s both comfortable and dutiful (in terms of a desk job). They are either too stylishly (namesake) ergonomic which gets them featured on an ad that their manufacturer ran on a magazine no one reads anymore or like conjoined pieces of wood or fiber and cushion that make you feel like a hunter-gatherer sitting on a stone covered with haystack. Some thought has definitely gone into maintaining the height of the desk as the workstations are at a favourable range for a person with an average height. But, in an attempt to be fancy and youthful and on fleek, agencies and corporates put stylists and interior decorators in charge of offices. So, instead of well-functioning office swivel chairs you have bar stools near the PlayStation, hard-cushioned couches near the cafe, and swanky-looking forms at the reception that look like they were put up just to smite the workforce and prevent them from using so that they are always empty for visitors who would then resolve to never visit again.

This is not to say that all desk jobs attack a person’s health. A lack of foresight or plain non-dependence on research on the part of the company are to be blamed. When an agency decides to become cool, it should not happen at the expense of its workforce’s broken back.

This is the only problem on this article that I see some solution for. Which is why I started off with it. Either take a stock of the workplace and the furniture or take a survey that does not ask kindergarten-level agree/disagree questions and instead asks something like: is your work chair comfortable? Yes or No. It’s common knowledge today that the computer screen has to be right in front of the vision range of the person so that they don’t have to move their neck too often. Assessing the situation and correcting it then would not even require a survey.

At an individual level, get yourself a laptop stand and insist upon using it even if it means commuting with a 2-kilogram piece of iron in your bag. (Don’t go with the basic AmazonBasics one.) Ensure you are not slouching and that you don’t have to jerk your neck up and down to stay on the screen. And most importantly, learn to type without looking at the keys. I’m surprised to have to write that line in 2019. (All of this is easier said than done, but can I ask you to take one step at a time?)

Lots of Screen Time

People in the digital arena are at a real disadvantage here. It has really made me think of a potential second career where I do not deal with a computer (or at least not majority of the time). But all I could think of was to become a roadside golgappa seller if I were to really add the “you have to be passionate about it’ part into the hunt.

On a typical day, I spend nearly six hours on the work laptop. At least two hours are spent on my phone while I am on agency time because Outbox is installed on it too. Plus that surveillance app that rhymes with it. Then I go home and sit on my home notebook (which is thankfully set up on a stand but I am yet to get me a swivel chair because of that reason I cited above so who’s a hypocrite now!) for about three hours to write articles like this, maintain my personal website, work on my side projects, and do personal networking. Add two more hours for phone usage, and then with my weak self-control mechanism, a few more hours on it to top the day. Bottom line: when I am not sleeping I am in front of a screen.

The argument that work should switch off the moment you walk out of your office does not really hold when you have international clients. I know those in the media vertical handling offshore accounts will agree with me but my point is also all-encompassing. Domestic clients often reply to that monthly report you sent on Thursday morning while you are going back home (or for a disco date at Tryst) on Friday. You would think your agency supports that argument with request for filling timesheets and the mandate of coming to work on time but then unsurprisingly there’s no mandate for when the sun goes down. “How about some skeletal support over the weekend? You know how the client is. We’ll go for a team lunch at Barbeque Nation once the IPL is over.”

If you are in a digital job you are expected to be available 24×7. And that shoots up your total screen time dramatically. In my own example, I am in front of a screen for at least 10+ hours. I don’t need to pull up a report to show that that number is alarming. I instead took a look at my own face on the mirror last night and I didn’t see a happy face.

Unfortunately, there’s no escape from this. Therefore, I would like to nominate it as the biggest peril of a digital job. Even if you restrict your screen time to less than an hour (for those urgent emails) once you are back home, the existence of a chirpy phone in your life notwithstanding, there is no way you are going to stray far from the screen. It is when there is no sight of solution for a problem that it begins to trouble you.

One other argument against this is forced limitation of screen time while at work. This means dividing your work time into chunks and then not using your computer or your phone for some of them. But what are you going to do instead? Read the physical newspaper that is sneezing with dust between those three chairs at the reception that no one wants to sit in? Network with people in your company assuming that they are following this same method and the same time slots as yours? Think about going for a stroll but then decide against it because its one o’clock and the elevators are going to mimic Mumbai locals? Sadly, with a digital job, a digital screen is like a hook that pierces into your body and does not let go. Unless you decide to be a roadside golgappa seller and give me competition.

All Day Sitting

Once when I was in college I suggested a Student Council member that we should walk and talk instead of sitting in a room to discuss games for the upcoming cultural event. He laughed at me and then we had all our meetings for the next three years in that room. After that I graduated and took up a digital job at my current agency.

In my digital job, I follow the principle of that Student Council member. I follow a sedentary lifestyle which gets translated without any loss into a similar setup when I am at home. In the past eighteen months, I have been in and out of of my reliable doctor’s office more than half a dozen times. And in one of those visits, the doctor blamed the result of the diagnosis on my sedentary lifestyle. He asked me to move around more during work and then asked me to hand over my wallet to him.

As you might have assumed, I haven’t been able to move around more during work. The biggest hindrance that I see is the obstruction of flow. When I’m in a work streak, I cannot or do not break it. If I do it, it will take me a long time to come back to that flow again. This is also the reason why I don’t use reminder apps. After all, the idea is also to get away from the screen.

In a digital job, you can move around with the excuse of refilling your water bottle, going for a walk post lunch, or going for a pee break. (I’m told a cigarette break is the most common, and usually takes about 45 minutes per roll because, you know, elevators.) But if I were to paraphrase what my doctor told me, these are not enough. You need to move your body a bit and maybe even execute an impromptu dance performance in the middle of the reception area if you want to undo the harm of sitting all day. Or at least take part of the daily commute i.e. the walk to and fro from the railway/bus station to office/home seriously without being ambushed by slow walkers.

I have been doing my share of walking and moving around over the past two years but none has helped as I was recently also diagnosed with an eternal back pain. I have not yet gone to the doctor’s as he already has my wallet. But, on a serious note, there is no escape from this either unless you are going to fall to the high claim of standing desks which, in reality, do not work as I just proved to you.

You need to move around a lot, not just stand. And when you have a laptop that is glaring at you, its charger that has your name written on it lest it get stolen, a phone that seems dumb and oblivious to your problems, a laptop stand that is slightly lighter than your paunch, your empty tiffin-box and the mini one with slices of browning apples in it, and emotional and mental baggage of being in a digital job, the going gets tougher, much the opposite to the easy passage that you took when you came in. TN.