With jobs and work schedules thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic. Productivity and earning capacity both for people, organizations, and economies have been seriously eroded. Getting economic activity back to pre-pandemic levels will be a great challenge even after the crisis ebbs and people start getting back to work. In the meantime, work-from-home (WFH) has become the inevitable alternative if companies and employees hope to cushion the adverse effects of inactivity and business disruption. WFH is not difficult to describe or explain. It means what it is, working from home instead of in the office.
This arrangement is not a new concept. It has been bruited about for quite some time and many companies have adopted it, some on a permanent basis, for certain aspects of work. It is not an overnight go-to-solution to be activated when business operation is interrupted. Many companies faced with work stoppages because of the lockdowns had little preparation to migrate work from the office to the homes of employees. It was not a simple matter of adopting a lift-and-shift strategy to move work to a different location. There are logistical considerations, and other concerns like scheduling, task redesign, output definition, supervision, quality control, attendance monitoring, staff support, and acquisition and deployment of materials, and supplies.
Many companies were up and running shortly with WFH arrangements., thanks to a responsible management, an agile organization, and adequate resources. While productivity may not have reached pre-crisis levels, these companies limited disruption to manageable levels, ensuring their survival and even readiness to gear up and bounce back rapidly to full productivity. They were able to keep commitments, and maintain relationships with markets, suppliers, and other stakeholders. To many employees, this was a pleasant alternative that seemed like the best of both worlds, keeping a steady income while avoiding the daily grind and hassle of agonizing traffic, rush-hour jitters, and other inconveniences of regular commuting. Modest savings accrued to workers who were spared the necessary expenses for transportation and lunch breaks.
Adding to this welcome respite from the usual daily rigors is the new-found flexibility in working around a home-bound schedule. Many were soon savoring a little more sleep, leisurely showers, the comfort of wearing homey clothing, and being in familiar surroundings surrounded by family. Never has work-life balance been this satisfying. Playing with and cuddling the kids between conference calls and keyboard sessions are moments to savor. In many instances, deadlines are met, productivity is high, and the quality of work is just as good. Not a few companies are already contemplating WFH to become a permanent arrangement when the pandemic is over, and everything goes back to normal.
Like all good things, however, WFH also has its cracks and downside. It may not be ideal for certain types of businesses whose operations rely on face-to-face interaction and demonstration. Internet connectivity and inefficient infrastructure are potential impediments to smooth communication and exchange of information. While comfortable and stress-free, there are tempting distractions at home that could interfere with work commitments and schedules like DIY projects and hobbies, the latest Netflix movie, a neighbor, or friend calling, and many small interruptions that could add up to a substantial loss of productive hours.
Aside from the logistical difficulties, employee attitude and motivation are important considerations. WFH requires the highest form of self-discipline, commitment, and results orientation to make it sustainable and consistent. During WFH’s initial stages, everyone was driven by fear of infection and loss of job, motivations enough to put in a hard day’s work even away from the prying eyes of a superior. As the initial fear and shock fade, complacency could set in and productivity starts leveling off or slipping. This could also result from unclear task definition and fuzzy objectives. Another casualty of WFH is the loss of belongingness and camaraderie. Boredom and loneliness could set in. Before the pandemic, the typical working man spent as much time in the workplace as in the home. Bonds of friendship flourished and developed over Friday night beer, karaoke sessions, company outings, and the usual banter and playfulness during breaks. It is only natural to miss those times. Sulking is the greatest enemy when there is detachment.
Human interaction is a basic ingredient in personal and professional development. WFH deprives the worker the opportunity to collaborate in close quarters and observe or learn from the behavior of peers, superiors, and subordinates. The briefest eye contact, the smallest gestures, or a nod convey messages not possible in a virtual environment. Staff learn from superiors and live interactions will allow then to witness how superiors make on-their-feet solutions, control meetings and discussions, charm clients, or simply lead. There is so much to learn from watching leaders and superiors and receiving advice in the flesh. These will be missed online. Motivation and words of encouragement, and the proverbial pat on the back for a job well done cannot be replicated in a conference call or email. No emoticon is powerful enough to convey sincerity and genuineness.
WFH may spark a revolution in the workplace and cut across all functional areas, like HR, operations research, corporate communications, customer relations management and many others. To regard it as a temporary fix is not prudent. There are features in WFH arrangements that are positively correlated to efficiency and wellness. Nevertheless, there is plenty to improve on or revise, enough to keep management practitioners and scholars busy for some time. Jobs may need to be redesigned, performance evaluation, compensation structure, computer networks and hardware will also be reviewed. Some companies will find ways to balance WFH with the need for workplace presence. The COVID-19 crisis made certain things impossible but also sparked innovative ideas that are not only possible but are also practical and doable. WFH is one of them. It might just herald a whole new world of goodness both for the home and the workplace.