The future of work from home

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2020 - 12:00am

The pandemic has radically changed the way office work is done. There was a time when work from home (WFH) sounded like an impossible practice. Now with the rule that only 50 percent of employees can report to the office at any one time, companies are literally forced to accept WFH as standard practice. There are even offices where it applies to almost all employees and senior executives are often the first ones to go to office once or twice a week. Whenever I hold zoom meetings with consultants or colleagues, I notice almost all of them are doing it at home.

In the Philippines, there are some senior executives who are resisting this practice. As one of them told me, he misses the days when he can call any subordinate to his office for face to face discussions. He also recalls the times when he can physically go around the office and see people busy working. Of course, I reminded him that this was not a sign of higher productivity.

I am looking forward to the time when there will be thorough studies and research on the effects of WFH on office productivity. There are also several factors that make it attractive and convenient.

Since most offices have instituted WFH, there is no pressure to physically visit clients or other offices. In fact, my impression is that most offices discourage physical contact and instead prefer zoom meetings. Obviously these online meetings can be done just as efficiently at home as in the office. Once the pandemic crisis is over, the interesting question is whether companies will start insisting on physical meetings again or will be happy with the practice of online meetings.

A survey of five European countries – Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, France – have now allowed offices to resume operations. The data showed that only 50 percent in those countries spend full time in the office; 25 percent still work full time from their homes and the rest combine the two options. The cited reasons are residual fear of COVID-19 and the inconvenience of reduced capacity offices due to social distancing.

I believe that WFH is very popular in the Philippines because it removes the enormous burden of commuting between office and home on a daily basis. Even with a car, this ordeal could take hours. After all, only senior executives could afford drivers. This psychological factor should not be underestimated.

The pandemic has caused the increase in WFH in compliance with the rule that only 50 percent should report to office at any one time. Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago suggests the growth of home working before now. The first factor relates to coordination. It was very difficult for a single firm unilaterally to move to home working because suppliers and clients would have found it strange. The pandemic, however, forced all offices to do WFH. Companies that did home working were therefore considered normal.

Bosses did not know whether clustering in an office was essential or not. The pandemic and the rule forcing offices to have only skeletal work forces have made companies aware that WFH could be done. Some firms have been dissuaded because of investment required such as laptops to enable employees to WFH.

The question now is whether home working will remain popular after the pandemic has passed. I suspect this will depend on the mindset of senior management. The traditionalists will insist on everyone going back to work physically. The tech savvy new generation of managers may find new alternatives.

After the pandemic is gone, the forces that are driving change in the workplace will still be there. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes more sophisticated and advanced, automation in all aspects of work will become possible. Yuval Noah Harari describes this in his chapter on Work in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”:

“A driver predicting the intentions of a pedestrian, a banker assessing the credibility of a potential borrower and a lawyer gauging the mood at the negotiating table do not rely on witchcraft. Rather, unbeknownst to them, their brains are recognizing biochemical patterns by analyzing facial expressions, tones of voice, hand movements and even body odors. An AI equipped with the right sensors could do all that far more accurately and reliably than a human. For this reason the threat of job loss does not merely result from the rise of infotech. It results from the confluence of infotech with biotech.”

The good news is that Harari believes that there are professions automation cannot replace. For example, doctors absorb medical data, analyze it and produce diagnosis. Nurses need good motor and emotional skills to give a painful injection, replace a bandage or restrain a violent patient. Creativity is also the cause of new music. AI, however, will result in the creation of new jobs. In medicine humans can focus on research. Rather than competing there could be more human and AI cooperation.

The problem is that these new jobs will probably require high level of expertise and will not solve the problem of unemployed unskilled workers. The pandemic has given us an idea what the future of work will be. AI and automation are inevitable.

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An Invitation for Young Writers, ages 8-15:

Young Writers’ Hangout on Sept. 26, 2-3 p.m.: Poetry Writing with guest poet Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta.

Zoom, write and celebrate with us as we mark our 7th birthday in September. Contact 0945.2273216


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