The world experienced a lot of “firsts” this monumental 2020. First Zoom wedding, first no All Saints/Souls’ day commemoration at the cemeteries (all memorial tombs will be close to public a week prior to Nov. 1), first no Christmas or year-ender parties. Indeed, the coronavirus has swiftly changed people’s ordinary way of living. The biggest lifestyle change happened in education and in work. The new normal is online schooling and work from home, at least for those who have been blessed to hold on to their office jobs.
For some, particularly those working in the IT field, remote work or working from home is nothing new. In the past decade, they have been accustomed to this setup. For the majority doing this for the first time (with no prior preparation, pushed to do it at the snap of the corona’s fingers), this presents a unique but welcome challenge. A recent The Economist article reports that working from home seems to favor many white-collar employees. Only 50% of people in five big European countries spend workday in the office. A quarter remains at home full time.
While a number of employers and governments want their employees to go back to the office, there is a ripe debate on the pros and cons of working from home. The same The Economist article cites a number of studies citing that a lot of work can be done from home, and people prefer the arrangement. They call it a “working-from-home happiness boost” that makes workers productive.
A paper in the American Economic Review found that people were willing to take pay cuts to work from home, meaning it provides non-monetary and well- being benefits. Another study of Chinese call center workers found that those who worked from home were more productive (processed more calls). A 2007 study from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics found that home workers are paid higher than equivalent office workers, suggesting higher productivity.
As in any debate, there are those who disagree. Reed Hastings of Netflix says home working is “pure negative.” Facebook and Bloomberg are cited as looking for ways to get staff back in offices by reconfiguring the setup. There is the view that bringing people together under one roof promotes behavior conducive to new ideas, that there is a positive relationship between proximity and collaboration. Yahoo, a technology firm, tried large scale remote working in the past and abandoned it because “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.”
Likewise, the economists at Harvard, Stanford and NYU found that the average workday under lockdown was nearly 50 minutes longer than it was before, and they more likely send e-mails after work hours, and this challenges how much people enjoy the new scenario. And those who enjoyed working from home eventually wanted to go back to the office because they were lonely, even if occasionally.
Then, not everyone has the ability to work from home even if they want to. There are many distractions. People cannot focus because of the uncertainty going on around us and the responsibilities at home. To name a few, there are household chores that need to be done, kids to be assisted in their online classes and that addictive Netflix temptation. It is difficult to draw the boundaries between work and life balance. The natural tendency is to start work late and end late, work at the evenings and on weekends and work outside of the usual hours with online communications open 24/7.
The pandemic has allowed us to debate this issue and actually test its efficacy. In addition to the technology challenges of work from home, there are other issues to confront — legal, social and cultural. There are those concerned about job security and social protection. No matter how this is resolved, the future will reveal some types of hybrid arrangements.
Thus, we need to find ways to make working from home productive. These five points from Regina Borsellino might be helpful:
• Get dressed. It is a fresh starter sending a signal that to get things done. Changing clothes need not to be as formal as you might look when you are at the office, but it should be suitable for public viewing.
• Designate an office space at your home. A lot of people see it blurry to delineate work and home while at home. This will help one to still find the work and life balance even at home.
• Keep clearly defined working hours. You must stick to your actual office hours, just like when you are at your actual office. When the working time is done, then it is the time to disconnect and give your family the full attention they deserve
• Don’t get too sucked with the news and anything else. Staying informed is ok but if it will lead to relentless worries affecting work, then turning off news notification during work time may help to keep anxieties at bay.
• Communicate and don’t forget to socialize. Staying connected to one another, checking in, doing virtual meetings will help manage expectations and convey the tasks that needs to be done. Constant communication with colleagues not only prevents miscommunication rather help us feel less lonely and breaks the monotony at work.
Now that we are setting the stage for our new normal, adjustments must be made. In time, corona will also be gone. For those who are blessed to be given a chance to work from home, do it well. Given our learnings this year, it will surely be part, if not the whole, of your new work environment.
The views expressed herein are his own and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of his office as well as FINEX.
Benel D. Lagua is Executive Vice President at the Development Bank of the Philippines. He is an active FINEX member and a longtime advocate of risk-based lending for SMEs.