WFH as the corporate world’s new default setting is bad for both employers and employees.
Two years of on-and-off lockdowns have forced the world to adopt work-from-home (WFH) technology and other processes as default and, by dint of fate, accelerated flexible work arrangement adoption. Now, with Covid-19 turning endemic in sight, half of the Singapore workforce is slated to return to the office in the new year under updated rules, even for jobs that can be done from home. But that may well add fuel to the fire of the Great Resignation – the recent phenomenon where Covid-fatigued employees are quitting their jobs in droves.
Business leaders are left pondering the post-pandemic corporate landscape. Their biggest question is: What place does WFH have in the future of work?
Top bankers like JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sach’s David Solomon, and technology titans such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Netflix’s Reed Hastings want employees to return to the office. For them and other head honchos against WFH, the “Great Resignation” might as well describe their state of mind – resignation that they have no choice but to pander to employees who want WFH to stay.
The narrative thus far has been about tech-enabled employee empowerment, casting as villains control-freak bosses and insecure middle managers. But which business owner would not jump at the chance to cut rental costs if productivity could be maintained?
The story is not a simple tale of unenlightened managers being put in their place.
Is WFH the business world’s “Eureka!” moment?
Certainly, Zoom, Teams and other technological marvels have made working offsite easier. They have opened our collective eyes to, say, cutting out a turnaround flight to Jakarta – a journey that previously had you locked in a 10-hour battle with traffic and travel, just for a two-hour business meeting.
WFH also affords unprecedented flexibility. Employees with a pre-dawn or late-night work call need not trudge to the office at uncivilised times. Those home-bound for the plumber or a grocery delivery need not waste a half day’s leave for a half-hour errand.
Clearly, we should continue to reap the benefits of this new flexibility even when the pandemic is a dim and distant memory. But employees holding business leaders hostage with demands for WFH carte blanche are pressurising them to pay the ransom.
Unpacking the WFH myth: (a) Are benefits to employees so cut and dried?
One of the main advantages cited of WFH is eliminating the commute. That makes sense for sprawling US suburbs, where the workplace could be a two-hour drive away. The argument holds less water in compact Singapore, where virtually everyone lives within a 45-minute public transport ride from the office. And with our MRT network constantly being enhanced, we have more lines than there are Covid variants.
WFH has been celebrated as a boon for those balancing household responsibilities with careers. But the data is more nuanced. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) survey of 30,000 Americans revealed that 32 per cent of employees, many of whom have young children, never want to return to the office. On the other hand, singles and those whose offspring have flown the coop (21 per cent) are raring to go back. The same article also pointed out that, based on a case study of a Chinese MNC, offsite employees were 50 per cent less likely to be promoted compared to onsite colleagues.
Putting these factors together, if WFH becomes an option, parents with new families will choose to stay home. In Asia, where the brunt of the childcare duties falls on women, those who suffer the “WFH penalty” will be predominantly young mothers; a step backwards in our progress towards a more diverse and gender-equal workforce.
(b) Creativity and competitiveness
“Zoom will never replace the water cooler – because when we gather face-to-face, we come to understand one of life’s great truths: Achieving our full potential as individuals can only be done with the help of others. And the more we surround ourselves with people from diverse backgrounds, the more we learn and the more we grow.” – Michael Bloomberg, May 2021.
The impact of extensive WFH arrangements on creativity and innovation is a big concern. These require group settings with active participants bouncing off one another’s contributions, hence optimised for exchanging ideas and generating new solutions. In contrast, virtual meetings are better as tools for information transfer. As Ellen Kullman, chief executive of 3-D printing start-up Carbon Inc, points out: “innovation … is impossible to schedule”.
If Singapore is to develop as a talent and creativity hub, a siloed working arrangement as default will diminish our competitiveness, especially when the staffer working from his home in Bishan finds that he can be easily replaced by a worker in Bangalore.
(c) Company culture and collaboration
Collaboration, mentorship, training and retention all need personal interaction to work optimally. This is also likely to fall victim to WFH-nitis.
Training and mentorship are not just about correcting work product; recruits learn from watching seniors interact with clients and peers, benefit from ad hoc brainstorming sessions, and develop an understanding of professional demands and standards from participating in real-life meetings. Newcomers and those seeking promotion are more likely to impress their seniors through face time.
Executives concerned about retention should also consider this: for an employee deprived of the joys of human support and kinship within the work environment, the only true differentiating factor is salary. If your employee’s job is reduced to tasks, which can be performed for any other employer, why would they not jump ship for an increment?
Some of us work in professions expected to get things right 100 per cent of the time. After all, nobody pays their lawyers to “try their best” or their accountants to get the numbers in the “rough ballpark”. Extensive WFH arrangements will reduce our ability to mitigate professional risk. Working in close proximity to colleagues allows us to test theories and learn from the experience of others. Strolling over to your co-worker’s desk to broach a casual question is frictionless; in contrast, some conversations will simply not take place if a virtual meeting must first be scheduled.
(d) Personal wellbeing
Study after study has shown that mental health has plummeted during Covid, contributed in part by the blurring between work and personal time. MNCs spread across time zones no longer think twice about scheduling meetings late at night with employees and vendors. Remote working also means that supervisors are less able to gauge staff wellbeing and support those struggling.
In addition, working primarily by virtual conference has led to disconnectedness. If the principal benefit of WFH to businesses is saving on rental costs, the dreaded hot-desking will only deepen the sense of disenfranchisement.
More sinisterly, WFH does not spell freedom. Alongside the advent of facilitative apps like Microsoft Teams, technology that tracks remote workers’ work and productivity has also emerged. Such software can log keystrokes, take screenshots and record your Internet activity. Presenteeism, which the workforce has been prematurely celebrating the demise of, will simply move online.
Flexibility and adaptability are key
The pandemic’s real takeaway: like the virus and its variants, the human race needs to adapt to survive. So too, the workplace needs to respond in adept ways. Black and white policies will fail. Instead, companies must structure future WFH models according to their needs.
Flexibility – not WFH – as default, should be the real change in our future workplace.
Certain jobs will not be able to pivot to a WFH model. These include a great deal of healthcare, service staff, and frontline customer relations positions. On the other hand, roles like technology services, telemarketing and research can be effectively carried out offsite.
For employees whose work lies in the middle, we must remember that our jobs are not only the sum total of our assigned tasks, even if the bulk of these can be done at home. We each have a bigger role to play in mentoring and supporting our co-workers and contributing to office culture. A virtual wave is a poor substitute for person-to-person interaction.
In order to build a sustainable hybrid WFH model, companies must clearly articulate policies, allowing the flexibility that remote working affords while achieving broader objectives. More than the right to WFH, I believe that every employee deserves a creative and collaborative workplace, where each individual is engaged, appreciated and cared for. And that requires more than a quarterly townhall meeting over the Internet.
Perhaps someday, in the metaverse, we will be able to simulate the human touch of a gentle shoulder pat when a colleague has received bad news. But that day has not yet come. Until then, I agree with Mike Bloomberg that “when we gather in-person, whether it’s to play or pray, to work or peacefully protest, we gain the power to reach higher, and we live more fully than we could on our own.”