This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 28, 2020 - January 3, 2021
AS the world enters the next phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and makes vaccination a priority to the most vulnerable, businesses are grappling with the possibility of making work from home (WFH) a permanent option.
As medical experts have predicted that world economies and society will normalise in 2022 at the soonest, in all likelihood, WFH arrangements will continue to be in place for the next year or so until the coronavirus is brought under control.
How will companies juggle bottom lines and staff welfare?
Although working remotely has been a boon for some, it has proved a bane for others. Some employers and employees have borne the challenges of upended lives for nearly a year now, whether they opted for WFH arrangements or not. Given the long periods of movement restrictions imposed by governments all over the world, challenges in terms of communication, teamwork, productivity, work quality and efficiency are likely to be already evident.
It should be established that, for some jobs, remote work is just not possible.
Functions within a manufacturing company, such as operating specialised machinery on location or field work in agriculture, have no opportunity for WFH. Those who can bring their work home — and online, as with teaching — find it challenging too.
In fact, Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) in a new study published in November said the pandemic may accelerate the automation of some jobs in the country, namely those in the sales and services sector, as they cannot shift towards being home-based during this time.
Even so, survey data has found that hybrid models of remote work are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic, but “mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce”. A McKinsey Global Institute report analysing 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs and nine countries found that more than one in five in the workforce could function remotely three to five days a week as effectively as when working at the office.
International organisations such as internet giants Google, Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, as well as confectionary and snack food and drinks company Mondelez International Inc, have allowed WFH for many years.
Investment bank Barclays Plc, which also emplaced WFH arrangements when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, retracted the order in September, emphasising the value of traditional workspaces.
Some take the middle ground, such as Box Inc, a cloud content management and file-sharing service for businesses, which will allow its employees to work remotely until year-end, but will provide flexibility in normal working arrangements moving forward.
Having surveyed more than 9,000 working professionals across Asia in February and September, Hays’ “Uncovering the DNA of the Future Workplace” report revealed that nearly half of the respondents in Malaysia were uncertain whether their organisations were “future-ready”.
However, the respondents were quick to state what would help: digitalisation of processes, openness to change, flexibility and availability of options to work remotely. Increased training and development opportunities, along with redesigning existing roles into hybrid or part-time jobs, for instance, also ranked highly on the list.
“These findings are in line with the regional average, with 37% of total respondents across Asia being confident that their organisations are future-ready, and 71% saying that openness to change and digitalisation of processes are what will help their organisation achieve it,” the report concludes.
Malaysia’s workforce has long made a case for remote and flexible working, Hays Malaysia managing director Tom Osborne says, with many attributing the sentiment to the long and tedious commute to work. “With the acceleration of digital adoption, it may be difficult for respondents in Malaysia to imagine a workplace that does not offer flexible working hours, if not remote working entirely,” says Cox.
Malayan Banking Bhd, which has espoused the WFH framework, says such will be the future of work as it complements other official arrangements.
“[This hybrid way of working] will provide diverse opportunities and a means for business continuity for the modern workforce comprising remote and on-site employees,” its group chief human capital officer Datuk Nora Manaf tells.
When the Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced on March 18, Maybank swiftly facilitated a default arrangement to transition 82% of its workforce to operate from home and be on-site only for urgent matters.
The bank subsequently formalised the “Mobile Work Arrangement”, repositioning more than 2,000 employees as part of the mobile workforce across all levels and functions.
It placed 30% of its staff in the frontlines, with 15% in the middle and 55% in the back office. Nora says allowing employees to work from home for the long term makes for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine how the bank runs its business.
Recognising the diversity of people in the workforce and facilitating inclusivity will unlock higher productivity potential, she explains. “The pros of remote work outweigh its disadvantages,” she observes. “We erase long commute times and fatigue. We make time savings for other simple pleasures such as family time. This is based on employee feedback.
“We actually accomplish more tasks remotely without a significant drop in productivity or quality even from the outset, and there is better collaboration. We are getting more future-ready. We have seen virtual interactions driving more innovation, which increases gender equality, too, as this helps mothers better balance their work and family responsibilities. Fathers get to be more involved too.” As for productivity and efficiency translating to bottom lines, Maybank announced in its 3QFY2020 report that it continued to maintain its profit while its workforce operated from home.
Hays’ Osborne says that while he expects to see a permanent shift to more remote working where physically possible, extensive research shows that humans often operate better when together in a physical community.
Herein lies the balance that employers and employees have long been trying to achieve. A successful remote work framework, after all, calls for the cooperation of both parties.
“The trick for smart employers, then, is to navigate a fine balance between business and productivity with the needs of each individual employee. If you’re not prepared to — or can’t offer that balance — then you will be on the backfoot from a talent attraction and retention point of view, post-pandemic,” Osborne expounds.
Work-life integration is exactly what is called for, says Jacqueline Ong, co-founder and executive director of The EQ Edge Group, a provider of emotional intelligence (EQ) training. “It is a time for employees to recognise that they need to look at work as part and parcel of life, not something to be dreaded as if, when you are working, you are giving up your life.
“For employers, it is time to recognise that your employees are living, breathing human beings — not just a business resource to be used for the generation of profits — and that their lives are integral to the business. Taking care of staff welfare to the best of their ability during these challenging times is therefore not an extra benefit, but part and parcel of the employment relationship,” Ong explains.
The provision of resources and equipment for employees to be able to work remotely in a healthy and productive way is key. Ong lists considerations such as supporting employees with reskilling opportunities to keep them employed, and allowing part-time jobs in the case of unpaid leave or reduced work hours. Providing staff with the resources, processes and policies to facilitate WFH are examples of aiding employees during these times,
“That said, employees need to understand that the business must be given every opportunity to survive, and not to be taken for granted as a bottomless charitable organisation,” Ong stresses. Work-life integration is, after all, a two-way street. Employees capitalising on the WFH framework should not abuse the flexibilities it provides.
Hays believes that drawing a balance between the bottom line and staff welfare means businesses must adapt their approach to attracting and motivating professionals.
Osborne says, as working in a hybrid model will be new to most businesses, human resource departments will need to build the culture of the business, promote ownership and increase learning and development.
That balance should also take into account new recruits, especially if they are young and have little work experience, as the disadvantages of WFH, such as reduced communication, can be especially glaring in such cases.
“If you have someone new joining your remote or hybrid team, it’s critical to help the person to hit the ground running and want to stay. Great onboarding achieves two things — a sense of belonging and increases the new joiner’s contribution moving forward,” Osborne explains.
The EQ Edge’s Ong believes it all depends on the existing work culture, and how supportive the team members are in taking extra initiative to assimilate team members under the “new norm”.
Maybank’s Nora, recognises that remote work may not be for everyone. “From our experience, identifying the right staff for the right approach is key.”
Maybank will continue with a hybrid approach, where programmes and initiatives are done physically and virtually, such as weekly time-out sessions to allow employees to establish connections with one another.
“We also encourage new recruits to take on projects and be involved in engagements beyond their department to foster connection and network with other employees,” Nora explains.
New joiners with less than one year of service are discouraged from working remotely. “It is also policy that our employees are not 100% mobile and are required to check-in at the office at least once a week.”
Organisations that have kept employees engaged during these times, Ong observes, have seen employees willingly work harder, take less pay and celebrate every little milestone to keep the business afloat.
“These are times when all parties need to work closely together because that is the only way to survive. After all, underneath the employer-employee label, we are all just human beings trying to survive this pandemic,” says Ong.
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