Office work in the future

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

There is no doubt there will still be office work in a post COVID environment. Not everything can be done on a work from home basis. There are industries where it is simply impossible not to work in an office setting. But WFH is now a viable alternative for those who can.

Indeed, even for malls, I do not see their demise if they do not overbuild. But some malls are dying in the US because consumer habits and preferences have changed, and they have the technology in place to make the likes of Amazon dominant.

My kids prefer to shop via Amazon and other online retailers. It seems there is never a day when the Amazon, UPS, and Fedex delivery truck doesn’t stop to drop a package or two at my daughter’s house in a Denver suburb.

If you know what you want and are certain that Amazon has exactly what you have in mind, it is most convenient to order online. But I prefer in-person shopping. From what I have seen of the outlet malls, I think they will be around for a while.

It is different here. Our few experiences on Lazada and Shopee have been bad. We got bad quality products that are difficult to return or even get customer service to answer their phone. Even for groceries, having those delivered resulted in vegetables and fresh meat whose quality is not as expected. I guess the property companies are rethinking their expansion plans to take the pandemic effects into account. There is the element of wishful thinking because property has been in the doldrums for two years now due to COVID.

A stock market analyst seems pretty antsy too because property issues are a lifeblood in the local bourse. So the analysis offered last Monday is pretty hopeful. “Bulk of the uplift will come from the property stocks, which continued to underperform in FY2021, despite improving fundamentals.”

My column last week on the US shift to WFH elicited a number of comments. Here are two of those.

A colleague sent me this email: “Your column New Work Environment was spot on. Your daughter’s experience is similar to two of my sons, both in the tech sector.

“One son in San Diego lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic when his employer’s market - public schools - disappeared. Within a month he had a new job in a company near Dulles Airport in DC, across the country. He never visited his office. Now he has a blended work situation with another San Diego company where he goes into the office some days, but has flex hours to avoid the rush hour.

“Another son lives in Brooklyn and works at Google in Chelsea, Manhattan. Only recently did he go back to the office and that stopped in December.

“Both sons tell me that if an employer is not flexible with a remote WFH schedule, they are not likely to employ higher quality persons in their generation (early 30s). Their generation can dictate the terms, not the employer.

“Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the government debates return to work mandates for BPOs since PEZA rules and its law require work from the workplace. PEZA is currently in discussion with the industry and other government agencies to extend the period of the waiver of this requirement.

“For me, one of the big lessons of the pandemic, as your column argues, is that flexibility in work arrangements is the new normal, and I am concerned that inflexibility may become a negative for foreign investors in the future.”

After I posted my column in the FEF Viber group chat, Dr. Art Corpuz, the intellectual guru behind Ayala Land’s property business, gave this reaction:

“The impact of remote work on productivity will be the most telling factor on the future of the office. The type of task and type of industry matter.

“As experienced during the pandemic, certain routine tasks require less face-to-face contact, while others are compromised by its absence; face-to-face interaction is more effective in enhancing creativity, fostering collaboration and allowing effective mentorship.

“Based on 2020 data, US studies show that real estate, rentals, and arts-recreation companies reported the highest gains/lowest losses with remote work, while businesses engaged in accommodation, food service, and transportation reported the lowest gains/highest losses; finance and insurance companies, which dominate most CBDs, reported an average productivity loss of 13 percent.

“Another US study revealed that 16 percent of workers intend to continue at least part time remote work after the pandemic, but the same study also showed that the average remote workday had longer working hours (by 48.5 minutes), involved more meetings participated by more people, and dealt with more emails. We do not have comparable data in the Philippines.

“Firms may be willing to accept a reduction in efficiency under scarce labor conditions, but long-term market competition, where incremental productivity advantages are sought and prized, is likely to favor a face-to-face work environment. This is especially applicable to industries that depend on collaboration and mentorship, and benefit from the ‘chemistry of the unexpected.’

“Rather than the predicted ‘death of distance’ at the onset of the internet, proximity has become even more important because of the faster pace of innovation and knowledge creation required by an increasingly digital economy.”

So there… As companies plan their strategy for this year, they must consider how the pandemic has made WFH not only possible, but a reality.

WFH had been proposed before COVID because of our impossible traffic problem. It was not considered seriously until lockdowns made it inevitable.

As Dr. Corpuz points out, WFH is not for everybody. But it is now a proven option for companies that can live with it, as many US companies are experiencing now.

Improved broadband is also making WFH possible. In my case, I was telling Al Panlilio, PLDT president, how their fiber broadband service to the home has very much improved. Approval of the broadband bill now pending in the Senate will make things even better beyond the metro areas.

The future is here and we must adapt.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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