The future of work could be from the office desk, from our bed, or somewhere in between, but nevertheless, any of these scenarios come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Patrick Tay, Asst Secretary-General, NTUC and MP for West Coast GRC, highlights the key aspects of each scenario, in this exclusive.
2020 was meant to be a decade of new beginnings and opportunities until COVID-19 came along, ushering in a myriad of changes – from the way we work, to work itself. It had caught us off-guard, and we were left scrambling to adapt to the new reality, in a bid to find some semblance of normalcy in the chaos.
During this period, many of us found ourselves having to grapple with new technology as we adapted to working from home. Even I had to learn how to navigate the various digital platforms, jumping from Zoom to WebEx and Microsoft Teams, to BigMarker, Google Meet, and Skype. The past few months have been a period of intense learning and adapting to these new changes. And whether we like it or not, COVID-19 has accelerated technology adoption; leaving us to either keep up or risk being left behind.
For me, the pandemic presented the opportunity to find new ways to interact and engage with others. As it was a May Day month, it led to the ideation of my four-part series, “Let’s Talk About…” on Facebook Live and Zoom on pertinent issues arising out of COVID-19, such as jobs, work from home, skills and training, and employment rights. In that sense, it is therefore fortunate that despite having to maintain physical distance, technology has enabled us to be more connected than ever and allowed me the opportunity to connect, build new relationships, share knowledge and raise awareness through the series.
During the session, I also ran a few simple polls on the topics to get a ground sense from the audience. However, taking off from these talks and feedback from many Facebook friends and social media followers, I embarked on a follow-up poll to gather thoughts on issues revolving around working from home and would like to share some of the interesting highlights that I had uncovered.
The pros of working from home, and working from home like a pro
The most common advantage of working from home – besides the ability to work in our pyjamas – is the time saved on commute. Gone were the days when we had to wake up at 6.30am to catch the earlier commute just to avoid the morning crowd, or frantically searching for a seat on the train after a long day of work.
Without the need to travel, we find ourselves with plenty of time to do other tasks – be it squeezing just one more meeting into our work schedule, spending the extra time to do things that matter with family, or even doing a group yoga session on Zoom. In fact, many respondents highlighted how working from home has allowed them to spend more time at dinner with their family – which is something that many had previously found difficult to achieve.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows
While the above is so, as we adjust to working from home, out of our makeshift home office, the line between work and personal life has become increasingly blurred – a situation that I and many others are familiar with. It is therefore unsurprising that 61.3% of respondents agreed that working from home has taken up their personal time and that they have overworked without their employer’s knowledge.
"People say we should never bring our work home, but what happens when your office becomes your home?"
A ping here and a notification there can easily bring you back into ‘work-mode’ even after office hours. The worry here is that allowing your work life to bleed into personal life is not sustainable for your productivity and well-being, not to mention the work-family conflict it can create. If you find yourself always on the phone, checking your emails while at the dinner table, it may be time to put down the device and start setting clear boundaries for your work and personal life.
Another suggestion would be to carve out a dedicated space for your work-related tasks, preferably in one corner to delineate the space from your personal life as much as possible. Set clear working hours and stick to it – know when it is time to step away from the laptop and resist the urge to check just one more email or reply to one more text message.
Work-from-home arrangements have also definitely impacted the relationships with our colleagues but many remain divided on whether it has improved or worsened this working relationship.
"Paradoxically, physical distancing has opened a world in which we are able to work with our colleagues and observe them in a non-working environment, allowing for greater connection at a personal level."
Colleagues aside, I have also received feedback from some workers that their employers do not trust that they are able to deliver on their targets. This is an area of concern especially when working from home is likely to be the default mode in the near future.
My biggest concern is if employers gravitate towards the notion that their employees are taking advantage of this free-wheeling system and are either gallivanting or sleeping on the job while at work.
"While the pandemic has changed how businesses perceive work-from-home arrangements, albeit the fact that some do so begrudgingly, one truth remains: It is important to develop and establish trust at work, and especially in a remote working environment."
I hope that employers can set clear expectations and place trust in their employees to put their best foot forward for the organisation. It is only through trust and effective communication where we can build better relationships in the workplace. Employees, too, have their part to play in adopting greater conscientiousness when it comes to dividing their day between work life and personal time.
Can work from home, work for home?
Separately, against the backdrop of rising family violence during the circuit breaker period, it is heartening that 65.7% of respondents felt that their relationships with their families have improved during this work-from-home period. Working from home seems feasible and doable until you realise that you are not the only one in the house. It is not easy, especially for parents to juggle work and family responsibilities at the same time – not when your children are fighting in the next room for the same laptop, while you have a Zoom meeting or when one of them spills a drink on the kitchen floor for the umpteenth time.
Single-parent families, or lower-income families may also face more vulnerabilities during this work-from-home period, having to balance the maniacal tasks of work, household, and childcaring responsibilities despite the limited resources. Therefore, more support should be provided for these employees to cope with the various challenges of working from home. I am aware of enlightened organisations that have started providing once-off allowances to employees for buying equipment to work from home effectively. The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has also come out to clarify that additional expenses incurred as a result of working from home can be classified as "employment expenses" for income tax filing purposes (save for capital expenditures/purchases).
Despite the convenience of working from the comfort of our couch, bed, or makeshift home office, working from home is still not for everybody. For instance, 51% of the respondents agreed that working from the office allows them the opportunity to get away from distractions at home. This brings forth the question of whether sufficient support is given for employees to work from home effectively. The challenges of working from home are different for everybody, but if it remains the default, it is imperative to examine and even restructure the way we work to provide the necessary support.
The future of work: WFH or WFO?
As Singapore presses on with Phase 2 of its re-opening, the question on the minds of many is whether we should continue working from home or from the office. Many tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft have announced their plans to embrace working from home and are going as far as to provide the option of doing so permanently. Whether this mode of working will become the next normal for us remains to be seen.
The future of work could be from the office desk, from our bed, or somewhere in between, but nevertheless, any of these scenarios come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Among our respondents, 93.7% of them polled said there will always be pros and cons depending on the individual and circumstances. Learning to strike that balance between home and office would be key.
The reality is that working from home is here to stay, at least soon. Just by working from home, there would be a decreasing need for office space, employees would spend less on transportation and commute but spend more on utility bills. Working from home coupled with familial responsibilities could also result in increased stress levels, which undermines productivity.
The work injury compensation regime and insurance will also have to be reviewed especially when the definition of injury “in the course of work” becomes shrouded with ambiguity and where a greater burden of proof will fall on the employee who is working from home to prove his injury was sustained “in the course of work.”
On a personal level, work from home has also forced many of us to adapt and learn many new and interesting things along the way. For one, I have picked up some nifty skills on live-streaming, and virtual meetings and engagements during the circuit breaker period. Like a friend in the broadcasting industry exclaimed, we are thrown into a scenario where one becomes the IT/technical support, the lighting crew, the set designer, and the personal/wardrobe assistant all rolled into one. It is true that while disruptive, this is also a chance for us to transform the way we work and pivot for the longer term.
Whether good, bad, or ugly, the changes brought about by working from home, have been surfaced more prominently in the past few months. It has also hastened our push for greater flexible and remote working arrangements which many employers held back on previously. It is now time to rethink and restructure how we approach the various issues related to work and employment, considering remote working arrangements. Our work and personal lives will be the better for it.
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Infographic and article image / provided
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