Filipinos struggle to work from home in internet-challenged country

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Many companies were forced to implement work-from-home arrangements during the lockdown. — BW FILE PHOTO

By Revin Mikhael D. Ochave

RAINIER JAY S. UDARBE, 23, has been taking overseas calls from home as a call center agent for an outsourcing company in Makati since the main Philippine island of Luzon was locked down in mid-March to contain a coronavirus pandemic.

“My internet connection was a problem from the start,” he said in a mobile-phone message. “Because of the lockdown, my company also could not send the needed hardware to my house so I could work from home.”

BW Bullseye 2020-focusMr. Udarbe’s problem is typical for many workers in the Philippines, which has the slowest internet speed among the five original members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to the local Department of Information and Communications Technology.

Not all Filipinos have access to the internet at home, with only three fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, putting the Philippines at 110th out of 187 countries in 2016, according to the United Nations Broadband Commission.

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Companies all over the world have been allowing employees to work from home to keep business running as governments enforce strict social distancing rules.

In separate announcements, companies such as Amazon and Microsoft have allowed their employees to work remotely until October, while tech giant Google has extended its work-from-home policy until yearend.

Twitter has said it would give most of its workers the option to permanently work remotely. Facebook followed suit and said it would open remote job positions later this year.

Back home, Citibank Philippines, Ogilvy Manila, Mondelez Philippines, Inc., Aboitiz Equity Ventures, Procter & Gamble Philippines, Inc., Phoenix Petroleum Philippines, Inc. and OceanaGold Philippines, Inc. have also allowed employees to work from home.

Even the National Government has been mostly run by officials working from home. News briefings by the Executive department are now done through the Zoom Cloud Meetings app, while lawmakers have been holding sessions through the same platform.

Not all companies though are cut out for the plan.

“Work-from-home arrangements will not be for all companies,” Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, chief economist at UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc. said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Some can thrive in it, but some will not.”

Sectors that could benefit from a work-from-home setup include technology and telecommunications and business process outsourcing (BPO).

On the other hand, service companies that require warm bodies at the workplace such as barber shops, factories, construction and real estate are at a disadvantage.

UNFAIR PRACTICE
Work-from-home setups in the Philippines have recently been put in the spotlight after some companies including those in the outsourcing sector were accused of unfair labor practices such as cutting wages due to slow internet connection of their workers.

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have sought a probe of employers who were also shifting the costs of electricity and connectivity to their employees by failing to provide them with allowances and subsidies.

Four of five work-from-home employees have been paying for their internet, Party-List Rep. Arlene D. Brosas said in a statement this week, citing a poll by the Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees Network.

Mr. Asuncion said work-from-home arrangements could entail additional costs and unpredictable changes for some companies.

“Companies must adjust especially if they have always been doing it the traditional way,” he said. “Their response would dictate the future of work.”

One problem with remote work is reduced productivity because there are no coworkers to hold one accountable. You can easily get distracted by kids, pets and house chores such as laundry.

Technical problems also won’t get resolved as quickly as they would in the office, and can make it difficult to work remotely.

“Being physically present in the workplace can help employees and employers alike to distinguish the lines and boundaries between work and play,” Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa, a senior economist at ING Bank N.V. Manila Branch, said in an e-mail.

Remote workers also have to deal with loneliness, time management problems and the proper way to communicate with coworkers far away.

The National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) has cited a spike in Filipinos going through mental health issues during the lockdown.

In a report, the state psychiatric hospital said it had been receiving as many as 35 phone calls daily from people asking for psychological support during the lockdown, double the pre-quarantine rate.

And as more people work from home, they become easy targets of cybercrimes, which have doubled during the lockdown, according to the National Bureau of Investigation.

Among the most common cybercrimes are phishing attacks — stealing personal information from a victim — as well as donation and online commerce scams, the agency’s Cybercrime Division said.

HERE TO STAY
Samir Sayed, ASEAN and Korea managing director at California-based audio communication equipment maker Poly, noted that with the right tools and techniques, employees can still collaborate effectively, whether face-to-face or remotely.

“Some people feel that remote collaboration is harder due to culture, practices and stigma of remote work when in fact it is not,” he said in an e-mail.

Companies have been forced to adopt and execute business continuity plans, and remote work can be a significant part of these, he said.

“Companies like Poly are ideally placed to help businesses and communities stay productive at a time where remote work and social distancing are becoming best practice instead of buzzwords,” Mr. Sayed said.

He said employers should give their workers the tools so they can work smoothly and more effectively from home.

“Employers should make sure that their employees have access to platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack and other cloud-based tools to stay productive remotely,” he said. “Employees can also be equipped with essential gear such as cameras, headsets and laptops to make virtual meetings as life-like as possible,” he added.

Mr. Sayed said those in the healthcare industry could use virtual sessions to meet with patients to minimize the risk of infection. He added that business customers were now leaning toward virtual customer briefing centers and hosting online conferences.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the conversation around remote work to the fore,” he said.

Despite their quirks, work-from-home arrangements are here to stay.

“We will see some more acceptance for work-from-home arrangements, albeit in a hybrid mode where focus will still be on the workplace,” ING’s Mr. Mapa said.

Fresh graduates may have to reconfigure their plans and expectations of their work types and arrangements, Mr. Asuncion said.

“The setup will bolster mobility and creativity for fresh graduates, but at the cost of career development,” Mr. Mapa said.

Mr. Udarbe, the call center agent, continues to work from home even after the lockdown in Manila and nearby cities was relaxed.

“Transportation remains difficult so our company allowed us to continue with the setup,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the same way we used to work.”

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