This is the title of the BusinessWorld Insights online forum series today, May 25. My position on this question is “Yes, we should return to the office, very soon.” I have three reasons and they are substantiated in the tables and summary of various company experiences below.
One, indefinite lockdown and stay-at-home orders which cover even many young and healthy people are anti-growth. Among the top 50 largest economies in the world in 2020, the Philippines was the 4th worst performer. And in the first quarter 2021, of the 34 of these top 50 countries which have reported their GDP as of this writing, the Philippines is again the 4th worst performer, behind the UK, Portugal, and Spain (see Table 1).
Two, among Philippine industries, the worst affected are those that involved face-to-face customer relations, like hotels and restaurants, malls and office/residential condos, and public transportation, especially provincial buses. Construction is adversely affected by the strict lockdowns and mobility restrictions like checkpoints between provincial and city boundaries (see Table 2).
Three, working from home (WFH) and remote offices cannot be a one-size-fits-all model for all industries and sectors, even for those that remote work is theoretically possible. Slow internet connection in many houses (unlike in offices) and regular power interruptions in some provinces are among the factors that make WFH not ideal for seamless work.
Being one of the speakers in the BusinessWorld Insights event, I asked some friends to share with me their company experiences, some interesting results of which I summarize below. Only Norconsult Management Services (NMS) Philippines and Protégé Communications (a PR firm) agreed to divulge their company names, the rest want to remain private. Thank you, friends.
Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in a physical setup vs. working remotely?
Physical set up: Advantage — coordination is easier, most equipment is in the office including printers, IT servers; conversations/meeting feel more human. Disadvantage — fear of virus exposure, stress is magnified and eats into staff productivity.
WFH: Advantage — safe, time saving, no grooming/preparation to go to the office, travel. Disadvantage — breaks in-between work seem to be totally forgotten; one ends up sitting the whole day in front of the computer working or attending Zooms.
2. PROTEGE COMMUNICATIONS
WFH: Advantages — not having to wake up at 5 a.m. for a 9 a.m. meeting; many face-to-face meetings can actually be covered by an e-mail. Disadvantages — losing human contact; you cannot e-mail a firm handshake or pat an employee on a back for a job well done.
3. LAW OFFICE
WFH: Advantages — Less time wasted on the road/traffic; personal interaction and networking maintained. Disadvantages — delivery of justice at its worst; court hearings last year were down 80-90%. This year, system is slowly improving.
4. AUDITING FIRM
WFH: Advantages — safe; staff in provinces now not renting room in Makati; minimize office rent and utility; availability of staff 24/7, can respond to e-mails even at late night. Disadvantages — additional cost to cover staff communication and electricity; emotional stress, thin line between work and personal lives, they feel exhausted; power interruption happens regularly in some areas in Luzon affecting work; staff lack sense of corporate identity due to minimal attendance in corporate gathering; life span of laptops tend to be short, no aircon at home, added cost to buy new laptops.
5. ENERGY COMPANY
WFH: Advantages — communications, interactions, meetings, events, interviews, or whatever kind of connection changed to Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Streamyard, FB Live etc.; allowed for longer work hours, heightened productivity and more instantaneous results as stressful travel/traffic is gone. Everybody was accessible all the time now. Disadvantages —Less human interaction affects team dynamics; weak internet signal at home affecting productivity.
6. FOOD RETAIL CHAIN
WFH: Advantages — remote supervision of business; initially resulted in poor engagement and more lapses, could also be caused by overall stress of getting sick, fears of the stores closing down. Disadvantages — face shields and facemasks wear down employees making them mistake-prone, adjusted later. Now no one is raising fears of the virus but mostly unemployment concerns.
7. POPCORN CHAIN
Physical set up: Advantages — Set hours of physical presence; easy communication through centralized location, access to files; easy access of customers and business affiliates; easy dispatch of customer order and delivery; easy and faster delivery receipt of raw materials from suppliers. Disadvantages — traffic, time and fuel consumed; risk of virus contamination.
WFH: Advantages — flexible hours and mobility; no attire restriction; risk-free from virus; less (physical) pressure from boss and co-workers. Disadvantages — Less communication between management and co-workers; increase in house utilities bill; temptation to slack off, house/family distraction.
8. SAVINGS BANK
Physical set up: Advantages — Onsite reporting. Disadvantages — semblance of normalcy, but one year after the pandemic, reporting onsite has become abnormal; lost good people to companies with full WFH arrangements.
WFH: Advantages — allows employees to report to nearest branch; saves travel time. Disadvantages — needed more space and connectivity provisions in telecommute branches.
9. HOTEL WITH OPLAN KALINGA CONTRACT FOR RETURNING OFWS
Employees would rather have House Use (free hotel accommodation) than WFH or work remotely. Advantages — employees are more comfortable and have confidence on safety protocols in the hotel; poor connectivity at home; eliminates stress from commuting and contracting the virus.
The decision to return to the office and go back to old normal ultimately rests on the companies and individuals themselves. For those who are confident enough because they have attained natural herd immunity (especially the young), or been vaccinated, or have effective prophylaxis and early treatment drugs, government should not impose more mobility restrictions and lift the strict and indefinite lockdowns.
Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the president of Minimal Government Thinkers