- The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated future-of-work trends
- It's thought that, after the pandemic, it will get busier in office settings
- But it's not clear office workers will return to the way they were
Dubai: Imagine, for a moment. A new virus emerges. There’s no internet. The outbreak is claiming tens of thousands, and no corner of the planet is spared. Scientists talk by telegraph. There’s no genome sequencing to inform them anout new viral strains. Vaccines are nowhere. News is printed on dead trees. It’s the “Spanish Flu”, the plague had infected 500 million people — one-third of the planet’s inhabitants — and killed about 50 million people, according to CDC estimates.
Fast forward 2020/21: News pops up on phones, there’s fast food, fast genome sequencing, super-fast vaccine development, and fast internet (for many, if not for all).
It’s the confluence of these events we dismiss as a given of modern life that have brought us to where we are today. Now, people on remote work value the newfound perks — flexible schedule, lunches with family, no more long commutes (road accidents too), greater efficiency. But, many remote workers admit, the hours are long. Is it to somehow compensate for not being seen? To prove your worth with work?
And work never seems to end.
Working from home meant my laptop is always open, on my desk. I hear an email notification even if it was 8 pm, and I’m happy to respond. Staying up and working? No problem! I didn’t have an exhausting 9-to-6 day followed by frustrating traffic to turn me off from working.
Remote or hybrid work?
A year into the pandemic, work has been “rediscovered” by millions of white-collar staff who realised they don’t have to be married to an at-your-desk-by-9am routine.
Commutes now mean a 10-second trip from bed to laptop. And many have found a more “open” relationship with the office. The pandemic, coupled with the internet has changed the office, perhaps forever. While the option to go back to offices remains, a new trend has emerged. Survey after survey show most people people who have gone into work-from-home mode prefer to keep at least some of it, when this pandemonium is over.
Not a one-size-fits-all solution
To be sure, remote work is not for everybody. And the jury is still out on whether a work-from-home set-up actually works for all, or is even sustainable. Some employers say that remote work may not be working for some companies — who are not doing it right.
“Going back to the office with 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, I think there is zero chance of that,” Daniel Pinto, JPMorgan’s co-president and chief operating officer, told CNBC in February. “As for everyone working from home all the time, there is also zero chance of that.’’
There are at least three main emerging remote work set-ups:
In the UAE, a legislation that broadly facilitates "work-from-home" concept for women was already set in place in 2007. Early in 2020, as community quarantines were implemented, the UAE’s Human Resources Ministry outlined clear remote work rules in response to the pandemic.
In a way, the shift to a remote work force or work-from-home (WHF) has become inevitable. In all these, the internet is biggest remote-work driver. It just wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-Internet age.
I felt very productive and actually felt I got to know some of my colleagues more through Microsoft Teams than I would have if we were in the office.
Thanks to globe-spanning networks, we now have teleconferences (one-to-one, and one-to-many). But certain jobs just cannot be done remotely.
Challenges? Working hours are longer...and not being able to separate work from relaxation. I generally prefer working from home as I am much more productive but my ideal scenario is a mix between the two.
However, my boss doesn’t seem to like us working from home and prefers to see everyone in the office.
Mckinsey analysed 2,000 tasks as part of a study on the future of remote work. The consulting firm concluded: Some forms of remote work are likely to persist long after COVID-19 is conquered.
Jobs that require physical presence:
- Health/ Medical services
- Caregiver / nanny
- Food industry
- Peace and order/Security
Jobs that can be done remotely
- Software engineer/app developer
- Web designer
- Writer/ Editor
- Project Manager
- User Experience/ User Interface designer
- Product designer/Graphic designer
- Product manager
- Research specialist
- Architectural designer
- Social media manager
- Digital/email marketer
- Account Manager
- Customer Service and Support
When the pandemic is finally over, what happens to remote work?
People say that even when it’s safe for offices to reopen, they want to return only part of the time and continue working at home, at least some days of the work week. Let's face it: Remote work may pose a challenge to managers. But many have openly embraced, even celebrated, it. News teams, by nature (like astronauts), have allowed remote work forever. Occasionally, team members are forced to come together for coffee or chai, samosas or mutton rolls, or just plain lobby banter.
Once this pandemic is over, I feel a 'hybrid' arrangement and keeping working days flexible would be the way to go. Also, staggered timings to avoid rush hour would help reduce stress.
Many business managers have also realised something valuable, in remote work staffing: When you hire remotely, you can get the best talent around, not just the best talent that wants to live in a certain place. And there's the savings of office space.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team members were rolling out a major project across the Middle East and Africa. We had deadlines to meet. I would be hooked to my laptop and headset, talking to colleagues, from 8am till up to 10 pm. Often, I would jump out of bed to my work area. You’re constantly on Skype, Zoom and Teams calls.
My family found it hard, too. Initially, they didn’t understand why my hours were long. It was difficult even to reply to relatives on WhatsApp. Initially, I also faced some technical glitches with my remote access system. You had to figure out a way to sort it remotely with your tech support guys. Also, since I work in customer service and supply chain, doing it at home without the facilities available in the office (to print/scan documents, for example) is one downside.
We've adopted a “hybrid” system — work some days at home, and other days in the office — to strike a balance. I find this less stressful. With a 100% work-from-home arrangement, you don’t get the diversity of experiences shared with colleagues. We have more than 130 nationalities in our company collaborating on projects. You’re missing out on healthy social interactions.
Right now, I go to office some days of the week. I find myself more productive that way. Once this pandemic is over, I feel a 'hybrid' arrangement and keeping working days flexible would be the way to go. Also, staggered timings to avoid rush hour would help reduce stress.
For the workers, there are savings to be had, starting with skipping expenses for morning coffee or office canteen lunch. On average, an office worker spends between Dh7,350 to Dh9,800 a year on for both coffee and lunch, globally, according to one report. The work-from-home have brought these expenses way down, if not completely.
As this becomes the new norm, employers do have to grow to understand the practical challenges of working remotely, such as a crying child during a meeting, or technical concerns that take longer to resolve.
With remote work, there are huge savings on petrol, tolls and parking (and fines, too). There's also less wear-and-tear on your automobile, so you won't have to spend as much to maintain and repair it. While many companies offer employee commuter benefits or travel allowances, which often goes into daily transportation, working-from-home can bring these costs down.
I try to treat myself as if I am at work during working hours, and even if I cannot find a separate room, I try to settle myself in a place that is less busy. At the same time, as this becomes the new norm, employers do have to grow to understand the practical challenges of working remotely, such as a crying child during a meeting, or technical concerns that take longer to resolve."
Overall, the prevalence of communications technology is the key enabler of remote work. There's a very real possibility of it becoming "permanent", says McKinsey. "This will require many shifts, such as investment in digital infrastructure, freeing up office space, and the structural transformation of cities, food services, commercial real estate, and retail."
We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different.
It can no longer be denied: the pandemic has normalised remote work. What that might mean going forward remains an open question. Do we see each other in the office again – and, if so, how often? If a "hybrid" set-up is the way to go, what impact will it have on the way we communicate, connect and create?
Will remote work be the great equaliser in terms of gender and diversity? And what will work mean if our offices are virtual and we lose those day-to-day social interactions?
Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, said it succinctly: "We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different."
For many white-collar workers, remote work is here to stay. Yet, for everyone, like the virus itself and its many permutations, there are many unknowns. Managers face the challenge of drilling deep into their soul to find the best way to deal with the sudden shift to distributed work. It forces many, given the once-in-a-generation opportunity, to reimagine everything. To imagine, again, how we can do our jobs better, how companies are to be run and where do we all go from here.
My 9-6 job meant my whole day is occupied with work. And once I’m back home, I had a few hours to myself before it was time to sleep. Believe me when I say, I didn’t want to share those few hours at all. It was purely and selfishly me time.
Working from home allowed me to be around my family, to sit at a lunch table and have lunch with them! (I’ve missed that so much...the last time I remember doing that was when I was a child with no responsibilities)
And I know you’re thinking, come on Amal, you’re being a tad bit dramatic, we still had weekends - uhhh no!
Weekends were social time! My only chance to see my friends and/or sleep in and lay in bed and do nothing all day. Being at home really did bring me and my family closer and I’m so grateful for that and I’m dreading starting work again because I know I’ll miss this so much.
Aside from that, productivity in terms of work has gone up! I’m free to work whenever I want, however I want, and in my own comfortable attire!
A 9 to 6 job meant just that. Believe me when I leave the office at 6pm, there’s nothing anyone can say or do to get me to “drop another email” or “follow up on something real quick”. My job ended at 6 and I’m off the grid.
Working from home meant my laptop is always open, on my desk. I hear an email notification even if it was 8 pm, and I’m happy to respond. Staying up and working? No problem!
I didn’t have an exhausting 9 to 6 day followed by frustrating traffic to turn me off from working. Happy to chill in bed and get the work done even if it means staying up until 2 am — which leads me to my next point! Working until 2 am isn't a problem because I don’t have to wake up at 7 am to beat traffic to get to work on time. It takes me 10 mins to “report to duty” — time? Saved!
What challenges did you face?
Communication and efficiency are some of the tough ones. I know I’ll get work done — I could’ve been lounging all day and being completely unproductive. But if I have a deadline, I will meet it. I wouldn’t keep my team members waiting/depending on me.
I’m just as efficient as I was in an office (minus the formal attire and the seated posture for 9 hours), but it does make your job easier when you’re surrounded by your team members and you can just look up from your screen and ask a question then and there. Or follow up with what you need straight away without waiting for them to check their emails or answer your call.
Do you prefer to work from home or the office? Why?
I don’t mind either.. but if it was up to me, I’d do half days. We need to be in a work environment to be quick and efficient - not everyone can do that from home (some people get too comfortable) 9 to 6 hours are just cruel. It literally eats up your whole day.
Too much of anything isn’t good. Too much of staying at home can and will encourage slacking off to a certain extent. Too much of being in the office eats away at your life outside work. I’m so grateful for corona because it literally twisted corporate companies’ arms into giving their employees their lives back.
I got to spend a whole year with my family and it’s so sad that we have reached a point to say that we don’t see family who stay with us under the same roof. Balance is key — I owe my company hard work and dedication, they’re paying me a salary & it’s my responsibility to give back.
But I am also owed time to spend with my family. Once that’s gone I’ll never get that back. No matter how big the salary is, it doesn’t replace family and companies should really consider finding a balance. Happy employee means better work.
In December, I was diagnosed with severe pneumonia, due to the effects of COVID-19. My wife and our two children also tested positive for COVID. Thankfully, their cases were only mild. Mine was severe. I stayed 42 days in the hospital. My lungs were severely affected. It’s a miracle I recovered. At Day 42, I was discharged, but had to have oxygen support at home.
I started working, helping out my team, from my home computer. Whenever I face difficulty breathing, I would hook myself up to the oxygen machine. So I would work on my computer tethered to this breathing apparatus. But it worked for me and my team.
My doctor has also advised me to limit my activities. I only get out of the house to get some sunshine.
One disadvantage of working from home: the long hours. You tend to extend as you become unmindful of the time. And you actually end up being more efficient. Whatever you do, whatever contribution you bring to the table, nobody sees. Only your work speaks for itself.
I still kind of miss the office environment, and my colleagues. You can shoot questions to them when you’re stuck with something. The feedback loop is faster, as you don’t have to initiate a voice or video.
When things get better. I still want to work in the office setting, perhaps in a hybrid setup.
In the office, you have full focus, and less distractions. Beyond that solid chunk of time, you’re “free”. At home, you can have many distractions, especially with young kids around. But having worked from home for the last one year, and realising its advantages, I would think it’s here to stay. The last 12 or so months have proven it. Given my condition, with my some breathing problems, it’s more favourable to work from home for now. But eventually, maybe a “hybrid” setup, where people split between working from home and the office would work better.