IN 2020, when work disruptions ensued at the onset of the pandemic, companies and business leaders urgently reassessed their plans on how to manage the work force.
They had to rethink strategies for performance and operations and resort to work arrangements that would suit both management and personnel.
Since then, numerous global surveys have revealed that remote working has been a positive experience for a significant number of employees, and that many of them want it to continue.
With the government announcing the easing of restrictions, and the economy gradually reopening, the question now on everyone’s mind is: will work-from-home modes remain in place or will people soon head back to their cubes?
In the Philippines, most people have gotten used to working from home. For almost two years now, our own agency’s monthly staff meetings have been conducted virtually. Most of our clients have likewise turned to remote working so it’s been key for us to schedule regular meetings whenever it is convenient for all. This has resulted in successive meetings for me and my staff during the day—and sometimes even way beyond office hours.
There were technical challenges, of course, but having adapted to the digital space, we quickly became accustomed to virtual discussions and viewing presentations on a shared screen—and to staging and executing webinars and online launches almost on a weekly basis. We required our finance and accounting team to report to the office at least twice a week because of the urgent and regular disbursements needed, while the operations team would voluntarily visit the office every time there were physical requirements that needed their personal handling.
Now that the government has announced the easing of restrictions, and because majority of the population in Metro Manila has reportedly been vaccinated, more and more companies are gradually resuming onsite work. This has given rise to a lively discussion of the upside and downside of maintaining flexible work arrangements versus bringing back the pre-pandemic physical office set up.
There are, understandably, differences in opinion between bosses and the staff.
Here are what some international “pro-office” bosses say, according to an article “What Bosses Really think of Remote Work” in bbc.com.
- Loss of control over productivity and judgment. Management experienced a “loss of control” compared to the prepandemic times. According to Pierre Lindmark, founder and CEO of Winningtemp, a data-driven employee engagement firm in Sweden: “If you meet people you feel that you can have control. You’re not judging people by just seeing each other on camera; you’re judging them by seeing their productivity, and seeing what’s actually going on in the office.”
- Lack of visibility can lead to less support for their needs. James Rogers, a digital public relations lead in the London branch of a British American global content agency, says that “more visibility of those they line-manage is a core part of their pro-office mantra. Not so that you can micromanage and ‘keep an eye on them’ but so you can understand where they might need more support.” He points out that “it‘s easier to discern if a team member might be struggling with a task when he’s sitting in front of you. You don’t get that visibility when they’re 30 or 40 miles away from you.”
- Social and creative possibilities for office-based employees are a core advantage. There is absolutely an absence of more social and creative interaction when people are working remotely. What happens during brainstorming sessions, for example? Or when a big idea hits you while you’re having coffee at the office and you want to discuss it immediately with your supervisor or boss? Those moments may be lost, gone forever. And spontaneity, too, may be missing.
Daniel Bailey, CEO of a London-based footwear research company, had this to say: “We did our best over lockdowns to be as creative and free-flowing as possible, but it’s pretty hard when you have to schedule a call for every single thing. Working remotely may have massive benefits but I don’t think it’ll ever be better than being in one place together for the creative process.”
- Managers of remote staff believe full time remote work is detrimental to workers’ career objectives. According to Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, their recent survey suggested that 2/3 of managers cannot fully appreciate the remote work that their employees do. Somehow this could mean that the workers may not be fulfilling the expectations of their bosses. It also suggested that managers still struggle to trust those who work from home. Perhaps this lack of trust is what contributes to their belief that they cannot do what’s best for the workers’ career paths.
Those who prefer remote work
ON the other side of the discussion, those who prefer working from home have practically lived out those old dreams or the promise of technology enabling remote work. A sizable segment of workers have their own valid reasons for wanting to work from different locations—whether from home, from another country or from the beach. I asked a couple of friends for their views on this and here’s what I gathered:
- Time management became more efficient when people started working from home. Traffic used to be a major issue for workers who had to traverse traffic-clogged roads going to and from work, spending a minimum of three hours and sometimes a maximum of six hours on the road! Aside from being able to get more sleep, those who have embraced working from home now say they can spend more time with their family, with their home interests, and have less stress commuting to and from the office.
- Higher productivity. Those who prefer to work remotely all swear that they are more productive in terms of hours. One solid example is Tanya T. Lara, head of Content (Features Head) of philstarlife.com, who has been with the media for 24 years. She prefers WFH because she is definitely more productive working far from the office.
“The only caveat is it feels like you brought the office home and you’re always on call. When I started WFH I thought: well, now I can have a proper meal, a break, instead of eating in front of my computer in the office. But I found myself doing the same thing, working while eating during the workday because there’s work to be done. The advantage of WFH, of course, is you can do it anywhere including in an island like Boracay where I’ve been since July of this year. Gorgeous sunsets and the swaying of palm trees can be distractions we all need from time to time.”
- Increased staff motivation. Most staff feel trusted by their employer as they are not closely monitored and they are given some degree of autonomy in accomplishing their work. They also end up happier that they can develop their own working routine at home so this can make them feel more motivated to give their best.
- Flexibility and agility. These two terms were always there even before the pandemic, but they suddenly became real when employees started working from home. Since they were no longer tied to an office, most of them had to try a bit harder to work flexible hours such as earlier or later in the day, and sometimes even on weekends.
- Improved staff health and well-being. Some business owners recognize the value of giving their staff extra health benefits such as more sleep, spending more time with family, and simply experiencing healthier lives.
Elbert Or, cofounder of Pushpin, a creative and visuals agency we have always partnered with, recently announced that “Thursday would be their new Friday,” meaning they will adopt a four-day work week starting this month. In their letter to their partners, they gave the following reasons:
- “We’ve always been a work-from-anywhere, output-focused workplace. This felt like the natural next step, one that gives everyone explicit permission to take a break and live their lives.
- The 40-hour workweek is the standard, but it doesn’t have to be our standard.
- Sometimes, we have to slow down to speed up. We firmly believe that we can’t be at our best and most innovative when we’re stressed. We felt this most especially during the pandemic, but it’s always been true, and a longer weekend allows us to come back to work refreshed and recharged.
- The four-day workweek gives us time to reflect on our work, experience the world, make space for learning, so that we can bring all these new insights and inputs back to the workplace.”
It looks like going back to the workplace will be harder than anyone originally thought. The pandemic has shown that employees can successfully work from home and they want to sustain this flexibility. A quick return to office work seems unlikely but with the lifting of restrictions, it is already starting slowly.
Ultimately, we will most likely witness a lot of experimentation among companies that will aim to provide the most flexibility for their employees while never losing sight of their business objectives.
PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the United Kingdom-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premier association for senior communications professionals around the world. Joy Lumawig-Buensalido is the president and CEO of Buensalido PR and Communications.
PR Matters is devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations. Please send your questions or comments to email@example.com.