Working from home - Fad or The Future?
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
“Please get me back to the office environment - I miss it”...
This was the assertion I was confronted with in rather humorous fashion by a CTO looking to break back into a traditional mode of work after what is now 5 months of initially mandatory, but now voluntary work from home conditions. What stands out is this, perhaps, isn't the most fashionable response to current norms, but we mustn't ignore the implications.
In March, Malaysia was placed under a Movement Control Order by the government to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Non-essential businesses were to cease operating on-premise immediately and nearly 90% of the workforce had to transition into working from home. Opinions were divided. Some people thought that productivity would tank. With easy access to plenty of distractions at home like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ etc, people would just abuse their newfound freedom and enjoy the work from home “vacation” while it lasted. Some people thought that productivity would skyrocket, just as it had in the numerous studies done on working from home all across the world before.
It is now mid August. With virtually normal movement restored, apart from international travel of course, which is a whole different discussion point, what was working from home actually like for most? What lessons can we take from it and are those lessons as expected? The truth is, there is now a great deal of work to be done to assess this so called ‘new norm’ that we have lurched towards. It’s fair to say, many positives emerged as the great ‘global experiment’ we were faced with ended up as a catalyst for good, leveraging existing technology, to create a ‘virtual’ work setting, where everyone is accessible, albeit in contact-less fashion. Malaysia also seemed to earn its spurs as a productive hub in such conditions, especially in global shared services settings, which appeared to thrive and raise their profile. In economic terms, clearly, certain sectors were hit hard, such as travel, F&B, retail and various services sectors, though outside the obvious, not a great deal was impacted adversely, which begs the question: To what extent will businesses make working from home a permanent option post-MCO?
Again, opinion differs. Jalil Rasheed, the CEO of Permodalan Nasional Berhad, has made working from home a permanent option for all staff moving forwards. Citing the fact that many in the office have thrived working from home and the overwhelming amount of positive feedback he has received, introducing this option was a no-brainer for him. While acknowledging the fact that there were bound to be a few rule-breakers, he was confident that this initiative would result in a net positive impact on the company overall.
Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, is more wary of embracing this option more permanently. While acknowledging the fact that raw productivity stats for many of Microsoft’s workers have gone up, he rues what has been lost on the way. He believes that the human connection, and the other soft skills crucial to managing and mentoring, simply cannot be replicated and learned in an all-remote environment. To him, switching to an all-remote setup would merely be “replacing one dogma with another dogma”.
Personally I believe a hybrid working model is the way forward - choice is the key and embracing subjectivity rather than a ‘one size fits all’ mindset. The fact is, physical office settings do serve a purpose. Whilst it may seem a rather traditionally minded view, the ritual of going to the office as a physical location allocated for work plays its role, especially if it’s a particularly well appointed or staff friendly setting of course! The feedback from many is they enjoyed the ‘buzz’ of work rituals, the relationships formed and that essential boundary between work life and home life. Conversely, many working from home are complaining they have difficulty switching off and the boundary between work and family time has been compromised. If there is one silver lining to this pandemic, it is the fact that this topic was forced open way ahead of schedule. Working from home has become less of a conceptual idea and more of an actual option for companies, which is definitely a good thing in itself - Working from home is definitely here to stay, in one form or another, that's for sure!