The decades old office home divide has suddenly disappeared. The home and office, two distinct premises till a few years, first saw the imaginary wall in-between crack somewhat when IT companies allowed many employees to work from home occasionally, since digitalization and the smartphone culture made them accessible. And now the wall has crumbled completely, work-from-home has become a norm, office spaces except essential services shut in most countries where the pandemic is not abating. From consultancy companies to IT and pharmaceuticals, employees in finance, human resources and other management segments are trying to maintain a segregation between work and family life, since both fall in one physical domain for the present. The commercial and residential, living space and working space seem to have merged, for better and for worse.

The new ways to work

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic on 11th March, and stressed on the need for social distancing, shutting down of public places and offices and other safety measures. As organizations started the remote work system, there was an initial sigh of relief from most employees, even as fear of a dangerous disease spread. The need to rush out at 7.30 in the morning, planning and organizing the home and family before that, working all day, and rushing back to chores and some pending office work to complete, made the days stressful. Driving through traffic, shopping on the way, calls to make, all added to a frenetic lifestyle. Remote work helped to ease and slow down the pace, resolving domestic issues even while posing challenges like concentrating and listening in on meeting without getting distracted with background activity, like bawling children, television sounds and other crises that mark typical households.

From the employers’ perspective there were concerns about productivity and accountability, the office always having been the disciplined, regulated workplace that infused seriousness and focus, was formal and organized, and hence ensured result-oriented output. The transition from full office workdays to online attendance was not easy. As Mark Pringle, one of the Senior Vice Presidents at Dell technologies wrote on the World Economic Forum Covid Platform, “we need to evolve the dated mindset that being in office full time is an actual business imperative”.

The home is the alternative workplace, far safer during the pandemic even though limiting in terms of personal interaction with colleagues. But then personal interaction has been redefined too- it takes place on video calls on multiple platforms, with just physical proximity missing, affirmation and bonding through handshakes, hugs and pats on the back only virtual.

Looking back, one realizes that domestic distractions were always frowned upon, and impacted careers. Research now reveals that productivity increases if these issues are resolved. Google’s decision to have daycare for small children in office premises, gyms and game rooms, addressing needs for rest and exercise have only served to bring out the best in employees. This model has been replicated in hundreds of organizations, providing all facilities at the workplace itself.

Change is evident in the way organizations now think, how they address meetings, events, travel, policies and accountability, and above all, understand the value of working in cyberspace and the need to focus on cybersecurity. The era of digital transformation began long ago for organizations, even those that found it unaffordable and kept procrastinating, now understand that it is the key to survival.

Microsoft’s research teams have found that employees are already showing signs of remote meeting fatigue, in-person meetings have been found to be less tiresome.

Productivity and costs

The need for having sprawling offices and multiple branches is being questioned now since productivity has remained intact despite remote work options. Productivity refers to the quality and quantity of output of individual employees that impacts company profits and also enhances efficiency.

 Companies like Chegg, a US based online learning company, have found that projects now finish before deadlines, people became more productive since domestic issues were easier to resolve and time wasted in commuting could now be devoted to work. A survey conducted by research and advisory firm Valoir found an average production of just 1% in place of the anticipated 15 – 20%, with remote employees clocking in 9.75 hours of work on a daily basis. 

The flip side

Another study conducted by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom along with Ctrip founder James Liang revealed higher work satisfaction among remote employees, attrition rates lowered by half, higher concentration and focus and lesser time off, leave requests and breaks. These have served to enhance productivity levels and strengthen companies during the slowdown.

As Amanda Stanway, principal architect in a Sydney-based architecture firm states, “most people work to earn money, but also work because we enjoy coming together to create ideas and solve problems…the sense of connection is fundamental to the human race”’. Man is after all a social animal. Being confined to the home, especially those living alone without family, are facing psychological issues, depression often setting in, and no one to talk to. In offices, you pass by tens of people, a word with the door man, an exchange in the cafeteria, a smile in the elevator, all break the monotony of solitude.

Companies are downsizing their physical premises, reducing physical attendance, saving on rents and maintenance. Travel expenses are non-existent for the present, and employee facilities in offices are not being utilized. Unemployment levels are rising but with lesser office spaces in use, support and maintenance staff will end up without work. Additionally, commercial constructions will slow down, changing the real estate market as it exists today. 

Offices and attendance cannot be written off altogether. The personal interaction is already being missed. Microsoft’s research teams have found that employees are already showing signs of remote meeting fatigue, in-person meetings have been found to be less tiresome. Remote collaboration often yields suboptimal results.

Systems and tools for remote work

Work-at-home plans have taken concrete shape and businesses continue, without too much being put on hold. Virtual meetings and webinars have replaced office meetings and conferences. Those that were still considering upgrading communication networks have now prioritized investment in technologies that will aid ‘work-from-anywhere’, like Microsoft, Citrix, IGEL among scores of others. Demand for virtual desktop infrastructures has skyrocketed, and the use of meeting applications like Zoom, Webex, Microsoft teams, Google Meet, Facebook’s Messenger Rooms, Go-to-Webinar has multiplied far more than anticipated.

Surveys reveal that the use of videos has doubled, and Microsoft found its Teams being used for a record 2.7 billion minutes in one day across the globe, in early April, up from 900 million meeting minutes a month before. Teams for education has 183,000 tenants across 175 countries where students have benefitted immensely from distance learning. 

Systems and processes to put critical technologies in place have been completed and regular check-ins becoming easier. Accountability at one point meant being seen physically on one’s desk in office, visibility was a big element of corporate culture; all this has now become redundant. The quality and quantity of work is more significant. Senior management has initiated remote coaching and keeping up interaction to involve employees at every rung. And though head offices will not become obsolete, they will certainly be less crowded, and progress from being networking domains to action centers where employees meet to collaborate and create, improve efficiency and add substantial value. Acceptance of working from home for routine work, has been a giant leap for traditional managements that focused on hours spent on office desks.

The agriculture sector has managed to display resilience and the Information Technology sector has seen a rapid surge in demand and activity as per the Myanmar Economic Monitor

 What lies ahead

The top globally successful companies set the tone and pace for others to follow. Not just because they have the resources to make bold decisions but also because they have invested in research and sought the best expert opinions before deciding anything.  Human Resource divisions of organizations are working overtime to rethink workforce and employee planning, come up with appropriate management, experience and performance strategies at this time. Remote monitoring is here to stay through virtual check-in and checkout of employees, tracking usage on work computers and monitoring of international communications through internal chats and emails. Many call it the “telepresence revolution” that is changing the workplace and the workforce. 

Already, Twitter Chief Jack Dorsey has said that employees can work from home permanently, having suspended travel and in-person meetings till 2021. Microsoft has extended its work-from-home plans till January 2021, while Google has extended its remote work plans till July 2021. Asian companies are selectively opening offices, opting for graded attendance, revamping spaces to maintain social distancing norms and installing sanitation and hygiene equipment. The measures depend on the extent of spread of the coronavirus. 

Myanmar has been fortunate to be safe and secure from the Covid impact, and after an initial lockdown in April and May, life seems to have resumed its normal course with offices and factories both fully operational. This however does not mean that the pace of economic activity has been maintained, there have been shutdowns and many businesses have had to wind up due disruption of the supply chain. The agriculture sector has managed to display resilience and the Information Technology sector has seen a rapid surge in demand and activity as per the Myanmar Economic Monitor.

The country’s borders remain sealed and only a few pre-approved international flights are permitted entry, with thorough scrutiny of each passenger, and essential institutional and home quarantine. However, the global pandemic has brought forth the need for rapid digitalization of workplaces and providing access to devices that will facilitate remote work. The country was quick to adopt WHO recommendations and followed contact tracing methods followed by other ASEAN nations, which curtailed person-to-person transmission and has kept the total number of Covid positive persons in three digits, nearly all being migrants returning to Myanmar.

With no visible end to the pandemic, no cure, treatment or vaccine yet, Myanmar is safe only as long as the borders are sealed, and in the long run, digitalization holds the key to continuation of businesses and employment that sustains lives. Being forewarned is being forearmed.