COVID-19 is reshaping what work looks like

Santhosh Viswanathan

SINGAPORE (CNA) – These past few weeks, Singapore’s largest Work from Home (WFH) experiment kick starts in earnest, as circuit breaker efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak have been imposed.

Businesses are shutting down en-masse, and arranging, where possible, for employees to work from home for the six weeks or so.

Similar scenarios are also playing out across the region and the world, as governments and businesses the world over are also asking their citizens and employees to work from home.

This is a seismic shift in the way we are working and living for the foreseeable future.

As much as work has to adjust to a new reality, our homes must also adapt to work and the need to stay productive to keep businesses running and workers employed.

This is already creating a bit of a confusing dichotomy for workers who now need to balance the needs of employment against the challenges that come with working from home, and an ongoing economic crisis that has just gotten worse.

Overall, this change will generate interesting insights into how employees and employers will reshape the workplace, and for many, what the work-from-home perk will look like in the future.

MOBILITY NON-OPTIONAL

Our work norms have changed in several ways. To start, work has become increasingly mobile, with remote working likely the baseline option for many, as more and more employers deploy laptops and smartphones to their workers, in lieu of desktop computers and desk phones.

COVID-19 developments have accelerated this shift significantly, making mobile work no longer an option, but a requirement.

This has presented governments and businesses with the need for formidable and immediate adaptation, taking into account the many necessary limitations and mandates imposed to help flatten the curve.

As a result, for a great many roles and functions, we’re beginning to discover that employees can contribute effectively despite being geographically dispersed, especially in the more critical parts of both the public and private sectors. This is despite initial teething issues, and other issues that need to be properly ironed out especially in areas of security best practices.

As this work arrangement continues, businesses and organisations will finally realise business in this new normal can still continue, even if parts of their workforce are remote.

Mobility will go from being a perk of the job, into something built into the function or role being hired for.

CREATING NEW WORKPLACE CONCEPTS

Second, as mobility becomes the norm, I also see the nature of the workplace changing significantly. To start, employers will look to make telecommuting a more permanent arrangement.

A recent Gartner survey is showing that 74 per cent of CFOs are planning to move previously on-site employees to remote work arrangements post-COVID-19.

After all, not needing your workforce to be in the same place all at once also means savings on office rental, renovations, and ongoing maintenance.

That said, the reality is effective interaction over time is what improves both collaboration and innovation. So the distance between colleagues and teams must be bridged.

Perhaps this new and less-crowded workplace emphasises a new paradigm for the office, where ideas, interactions and our work relationships can thrive. Instead of creating a bunch of cubes where people work in solitude, office spaces should be designed to encourage collaboration while accommodating different employee work styles and preferences.

While part of the workforce can be encouraged to work remotely if they feel the need to, those who opt to work from the office should have spaces that encourage and enable collaboration.

Instead of swathes of open working spaces, employers might consider building huddle rooms that are video first.

Office designers could replace the conference phones in these small meeting spaces with video conferencing gear by default, to better enable collaboration in small groups, whether with colleagues in other time zones or those working from home.

ENHANCING PRODUCTIVITY AT HOME AND A HIGHER DEGREE OF TRUST

The debate over COVID-19’s impact on productivity has been a heated one.

The challenge is compounded when the widespread use of laptops and mobile devices have in the past encouraged an always-on, always-connected mentality, which some employers have taken advantage of, often blurring the boundaries between work and life.

In fact, as remote work results in a lack of performance visibility, employees end up feeling the need to self-manage more.

This constant reminder that productivity is the default measure of accomplishment leads them to work longer hours from home than in the office.

As businesses’ and governments’ work-from-home policies are accelerated and put to the test in short order, both employers and employees will have to start having a higher degree of trust in the workplace.

It might not come naturally but employers must trust their employees will get work done, while considering that some adjustments are inevitable, especially for those with family responsibilities to manage while also working from home.

For employees, this flexibility and trust can lead to improved productivity while working from home.

A study conducted by Stanford University, in fact, revealed that performance among call centre employees who worked from home for nine months saw an increase by 13 per cent.

It also helps that technologies that enable productivity and collaboration has become affordable and ubiquitous for many, such as high-speed Internet connectivity, high-performance laptops in thin-and-light form factors, as well as the emergence of numerous cloud-based platforms for financial services, e-commerce and more.

NEW SOCIAL NORMS ESTABLISHED

Many businesses were afraid to implement flexible work practices before the pandemic but are now diving into this work-from-home world with urgency.

The past few weeks have shown that we have become more comfortable utilising technology like video to collaborate, and to build strong and lasting relationships (whether professional or personal) over long distances if required, taking the place of tedious and expensive business travel.

The extended time at home for many will go a long way in establishing better work-life balance, whether practising better self-discipline to be optimally productive during working hours, or getting better at setting a clear end to the workday in order to spend more time with family, and post-COVID-19, perhaps to have more frequent catch-ups with friends in and outside of work, or to attend a concert.

But while WFH is (quite literally) a lifesaver, it cannot completely replace the human connection and friendships that we build at work, by physically coming into an office and engaging face to face with colleagues.

THE REAL REVOLUTION HAS JUST BEGUN

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution kicked off, great emphasis was placed on the role of digital transformation in defining how businesses would remain relevant in the future.

Up until two months ago, the actual transformation has been rather slow for many.

Today, it turns out COVID-19 has been the greatest catalyst for digital transformation the world has seen, with companies now accelerating adoption of these future work practices that have been discussed for years. Digital readiness is no longer optional.

These are extraordinary times for all. Companies must deliberately rethink how we approach our relationships with work, technology, and more importantly, the people in our lives, so as to ensure that we can come out all the better and stronger when this crisis ends.