All over the world, professionals, who until recently had workdays structured around conference room meetings and pantry break catch-ups with colleagues, are getting used to the Zoom grid and squeezing in a bit of housework as they deal with their inbox. With COVID-19 requiring many to work from home for the sake of curbing the coronavirus spread, are we living through the last of the five-day office week as we know it?
Prevailing trends suggest that this may very well be the case. Even prior to the current pandemic, over six in 10 Singaporeans said they worked remotely on a weekly basis, with half doing so for at least half the week, according to a 2018 IWG Flexible Working Survey. Such arrangements helped to attract younger talent and retain seasoned staff who were keen on more flexible work schedules. Now, however, the ability to enable employees to work from home has become nothing less than necessary for survival.
Working from home in the time of COVID-19 ensures the continuity of business operations, which “keeps employees employed and businesses afloat”, says Dr Paul Lim, Lecturer of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources at SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business. The capacity to transition into this way of working “gives confidence to various stakeholders that are connected to the business’ ecosystem”.
As such, it’s little wonder that employers who may have been insistent on facetime over FaceTime until quite recently have found good reason to change their minds. “I think that the very need for survival has changed employers’ perceptions of flexible work arrangements using digital platforms,” Dr Lim believes. “A failure to adapt to the changing circumstances will invariably lead to the organisation’s eventual collapse.”
The companies that do survive these challenging times may find that allowing staff to continue working from home, even after the coronavirus crisis is resolved, is an appealing prospect. For starters, they will be able to save on costly office rents. Another potential push factor is employee preference—many may simply realise that a working life that doesn’t involve daily commutes to and from the office is actually quite enticing. “With many getting used to such arrangements, it will not be surprising for some employees to request or even demand an extension to working from home,” Dr Lim believes. “At the end of the day, if the quality of your work is not compromised, and if there are cost savings for the employer, there is no reason why such arrangements should be denied.”
In fact, this new paradigm may spur employers to tap on latent talent pools such as stay-home mothers, says Dr Lim, who points out that such women can be highly qualified, digitally savvy, and eager to contribute to the workforce while caring for their children. “Hopefully, employers will awake to the idea of hiring this valuable group.”
Silver linings aside, however, remote working has significant limitations and challenges. First and foremost, it is not a business model that can be realistically adopted by all businesses. Brick-and-mortar retail and food and beverage outlets still rely heavily on instore traffic that requires staff to be physically present in the premises. For such businesses, online orders alone cannot sustain their survival in the long run, and do not generate enough employment opportunities for existing staff either. For businesses like car workshops and airlines, shifting online is not even an option.
Even for businesses that can transition work arrangements online for its employees, the migration may not be seamless. “Organisations that did not have such arrangements in place before the circuit breaker would find such arrangements foreign, and thus face a steep learning curve,” says Dr Lim.
“Employers should trust their employees, but trust does not mean the absence of verification.”
One hurdle may be a lack of trust on the employers’ part. “I am aware of cases where SME owners require their employees who are working from home to have a webcam pointed at them throughout the day, to prove they are actually working,” says Dr Lim, who believes there are more productive ways to manage such situations. “Employers should trust their employees, but trust does not mean the absence of verification. Milestones must still be set, and timelines adhered to. If the employee does not deliver good work, the employer has the right to remind the employee of the standards that are needed. It would serve everyone’s interests if communication is clear and work is properly delivered.”
And lastly, going solo may not suit everyone. “Employees who prefer working in a quiet environment and appreciate the autonomy of such arrangements will fit right into working from home nicely. However, the more extroverted and social ones may find it hard to adjust,” says Dr Lim.
For those who sorely miss the conviviality of the office, perhaps history may provide some perspective: before the 17th century, working from home was actually the norm. Since then, spectacular office towers have reshaped city skylines, but also contributed to sky-high rents that make it tough for more idiosyncratic and independent establishments to add character to urban life. Offices have been trying to shake off their inherent rigidities for decades now—cubicles morphed into open concepts, tech companies introduced fancy cafeterias and ping-pong tables, co-working spaces added events calendars and networking opportunities. The office changes all the time; and while working from home may well be the next prevailing change, it will most definitely not be the last.
Watch Dr Lim’s recent interview with Mothership on productivity while working from home:
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