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Work in the new normal

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2021 - 12:00am

“Medyo kulelat tayo ngayon, nahuhuli tayo pagdating sa recovery. In other words, tayo nagre-recover naman. Nakita natin ‘yung GDP (natin) na bumagsak,” Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez admitted in an interview on ABS-CBN TeleRadyo.

Secretary Lopez observed that among all economies, the Philippines is in last place in terms of resurgence from the deadly outbreak. No wonder he was desperate enough to recommend allowing cinemas and game arcades to open, a suggestion that horrified health professionals.

Secretary Lopez is not the only one worried about the economy’s trajectory. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has recommended placing the entire Philippines under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), the most lenient quarantine status, by March 1.

Acting NEDA director general Karl Chua pointed out that quarantine restrictions since March last year have caused a total income loss of P1.04 trillion or P2.8 billion per day, which translates to an average annual income loss of P23,000 per worker. He said the impact on the income and livelihood of other workers is worse.

All that is true and indeed, the government should start moving faster to get things back to normal. First on the agenda should be a ramped-up schedule of vaccinating our people. Without vaccination, we may just end up opening and closing our economy over and over again.

There are bright spots. Jojo Uligan, president of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), said in an ANC interview that the business process outsourcing industry will hire between 80,000 to 100,000 employees this year.

Uligan also noted an increase in productivity brought by the work from home setup, which he said, would be maintained even after the pandemic.

“We’re looking at maintaining a good portion of our people to do work from home. We managed to execute it well, it will be a permanent solution already. Before COVID-19, there was very little work from home... But now for Alorica (Uligan’s company), about 70 to 80 percent of our employees are working from home,” he said.

Beyond BPOs, DOLE should start examining a suggestion from a business executive to expand the official working hours as a means of creating more jobs as we emerge from the pandemic’s economic fallout.

We need to update labor laws that will make an expanded work day possible. We have already done that to benefit the BPO industry. We should just make the changes more general in coverage.

Eckie Gonzalez, a Harvard MBA graduate running Medical City, made the suggestion to expand the working hours. Formally expanding the working day, he said, is “the most cost-effective way to raise production capacity while increasing employment.”

Of course, with expanded work hours, DOTr must make sure there will be adequate and safe transportation for late night workers. With the “boundary system” ended and replaced by the service contract scheme, that should be possible.

In any case, the work from home arrangement that came with the COVID lockdowns also effectively demolished the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. working hours. For some, the office hours sort of blurred with bosses and colleagues feeling free to call or have Zoom meetings anytime.

There are other industries that could benefit from working expanded hours.

The construction industry, a major employer that accounts for 10 percent of GDP should benefit from round the clock work schedules. Working at night is even beneficial for construction activities like road repair and laying down water pipes. Working off hours is easier when roads are less crowded. DPWH had been doing this pre-pandemic when they patch up EDSA at night and during weekends.

The public education sector had been having at least two shifts of classes in Metro Manila public schools for years to maximize the use of limited numbers of classrooms. Aside from morning and afternoon sessions, some public schools also have evening sessions.

It may not be obvious to many, but even agriculture could benefit. The era of the urban farm has arrived and it may just be the answer to the metro area’s usual problem with farm products unable to reach metro markets when needed.

There may be many abandoned buildings that could be converted to vertical farms, using the hydroponic farming method of growing plants. The hydroponic gardener regulates the composition of nutrients in the liquid solution used to water the plants. This method of farming depends on artificial lighting as well.

Government offices should set the example for working expanded hours. Community health centers, for example, should stay open longer to allow patients who work regular schedules more time to see doctors.

The same is true for many government agencies whose services are required by citizens who can only follow up papers after their own work day is over.

Getting the economy back on track also means taking into account where we work. Is it safe to get people back to their regular offices? The vaccines won’t be available until the second half of the year, at the earliest.

A survey of Colliers Philippines revealed that the majority of respondents still believe they are more productive in a traditional office set up.

Because of the pandemic, office vacancy in Metro Manila rose to 9.1 percent in 2020, more than double the 4.3 percent vacancy in 2019. Meanwhile, flexible workspaces’ vacancy ballooned to 41 percent in 2020 from 28 percent in 2019.

With the promise of better broadband services on our horizon, work from home may not easily disappear in our future. In the US, many companies have announced they will work from home indefinitely.

Or there could be a middle ground. Some days of the week they will work from home and some days from a flexible work space that is not necessarily the old office.

Many businesses have given up their offices and may take this option of having work spaces outside the central business districts. Some employees need a place to plug their computers for work because the distractions at home are not conducive for working.

Indeed, we all have to be more creative. That’s how to survive in the new normal environment and help revive the economy quickly.

 

 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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