Work from anywhere

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

It is now work from anywhere. New York-based companies told the New York Times that some of their key managers moved to Florida or some ski resort for the winter and are staying there. Others moved to Los Angeles and even close to the Antarctic.

The newly elected mayor of New York City has a problem. Workers in those high rise office buildings don’t want to go back to their downtown offices. Thanks to current technology, they can now work from anywhere.

A recent NYT article reports that workers happy to work in their pajamas pose “a profound threat to the city’s real estate-reliant tax base, money that helps fund schools, the police, and parks.

“Without regular commuters, the region’s public transit systems face service cuts that will disproportionately harm workers who must show up in person,” the NYT article pointed out.

But Brad Lander, New York City’s comptroller, told the NYT that “We are not going back to 100 percent midtown office occupancy. The sooner that stakeholders come to grips with that reality, the sooner we can take smart action.”

Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez and Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez are being stubborn in requiring our BPO industry to immediately go back to their offices or lose their tax perks. There is pressure to return to offices from local property companies whose pandemic losses due to lockdowns are significant.

The problem is, they are being shortsighted. Work from home protected office workers from the virus during the pandemic. It is here to stay in a new normal, like it or not.

There is one more good reason why we should adopt WFH — our horrible traffic and public transportation situation. Our workers have to spend four hours a day in slow moving traffic and bear with inadequate public transportation.

Work from Home was one of the things proposed even before the pandemic. It sounded weird. But COVID proved it works. It saved the day for the IT-BPM industry.

Considering that the IT-BPM industry is a major forex earner, one of only two legs in our economy – with OFWs being the other, our government should be more helpful and allow them to keep laying those golden eggs, $11.5 billion worth a year and rising.

The IT-BPM industry is probably the only one that grew in 2020, creating 23,000 new jobs during the height of COVID. That’s thanks to WFH arrangements.

It was not easy to move facilities from the offices to the homes of close to a million workers. That’s a major logistical effort and is expensive too. It is unreasonable for the government to ask them to go back to their offices at the snap of a finger.

All in all, Jack Madrid, who speaks for the industry, told me that industry productivity was not affected by the lockdowns. Indeed, their customers were pleased enough to create 100,000 new jobs in 2021.

Our BPOs are now serving the world through 24 time zones, Mr. Madrid said. We are tops in voice and contact service.

Indeed, their problem now is hiring more and more qualified staff. The industry had been notorious for having a high turnover rate even before the pandemic. Rising labor costs also affects competitiveness.

Now that they are being ordered to go back to the office, many BPO workers would rather quit. Companies are worried they will lose their more dependable staff.

According to yugatech.com, Mitch Locsin, PLDT first vice president and Enterprise revenue group head, said the Philippines would not only see higher attrition rates in the BPO industry, but it may also lose its competitiveness because other countries have adopted the WFH arrangement as part of the new normal for their BPO industries.

A New York-based friend of mine who runs a call center here told me that the good agents can easily get jobs from many global platforms such as freelancer.com and guru.com and work from home.

As international freelancers, agents are paid via online payment platforms… no payroll taxes, no SSS, PhilHealth and PagIBIG contributions. In the end, the underground economy expands and the government loses out.

As my friend was telling me, it is unfair of the economic managers to effectively make the BPO industry pay for the wanton expansion of the real estate industry that lost their gaming or POGO tenants.

Remember too that our BPOs have international competitors. When the BPO industry was launched, the exchange rate of the Indian rupee to the dollar was about the same as ours. Now they are at about 76 to the dollar. Denying our BPOs tax perks may push some over the edge.

We still have our advantage in voice, but for how long? In terms of digital preparedness, the Indians beat us. We do not educate enough of our young people to have the digital skills needed.

Losing flexibility in the work environment won’t do our industry any good. Even in the US, the current war for talent, with job openings near record highs, many companies say flexible work policies are key to gaining an edge over competitors.

Women are also far more likely to cite remote work as a job requirement. Mr. Madrid said some 60 percent of our BPO industry workers are women.

The industry is ready to compromise, asking our government to allow hybrid work arrangements where workers spend some days in the office and others at home or anywhere.

Indeed, recruiting and retaining qualified staff is a major headache for our BPO industry. They are not getting a steady stream of qualified staff from the educational system. It isn’t just about science and math. Even English proficiency is now a problem.

They understand the government push to discourage setting up call centers in Mega Manila. Indeed, they now have 400,000 workers in the countryside where labor costs are cheaper. But vast improvement in broadband connectivity is needed.

Work from anywhere is now here. The old fogies determining our economic policies should stop thinking analog in today’s digital world. We will be left behind even more.



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


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