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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ups and downs of working from home sweet office

 

Work from home (WFH) or return to office (RTO)? The debate rages on. On social media the views seem to clearly favour WFH. But I also hear different stories from people who are stressed with work that never seems to end with the day, or even the week.

Some of the stress is certainly caused by being confined under lockdown – dealing with mothers-in-law, childcare, cramped living quarters, and other problems are certainly real issues.

Technology today makes it even easier for toxic bosses to monitor every aspect of your job, from toilet time to keystrokes. Such bosses, of which there are many, are giddy with excitement at their newfound power to micromanage their staff even more.

Where am I in this debate? Perhaps some background first.

In 2004, I worked in a Malaysian mobile telecommunications company under a revolutionary CEO who upended everything to create a fresh new company and leapfrog over the competition.

We tagged our journey as being different, daring, dynamic.

Different, daring and dynamic changes happened externally – products, pricing, technology, etc. The accountants said we would lose millions, but the boss did it anyway.

We didn’t lose millions. In fact, we made more millions while also changing the business landscape forever.

Different, daring and dynamic changes also happened internally – hierarchies, levels and grades were eliminated. Employee benefits were levelled, be it for bosses or the tea ladies.

We built a brand new HQ without any fancy lobbies, boardrooms or Italian marble. Everybody sat on the same type of expensive chair, clerks and chiefs alike, and there were no corner offices – or any private offices at all, for anybody.

For the amount of money we spent on a whole HQ for a thousand people, our competitor spent an equivalent amount to renovate one and a half floors at their HQ. Given that we kicked asses, including theirs, it certainly proved that money can’t buy success.

The boss would saunter in around nine in the morning, and saunter off around five in the afternoon. He would scold people who sent Blackberry emails after 6pm. While on vacation he told people not to call him unless the company was on fire.

We were creating a healthy work-life balance even before the concept was being talked about.

The result? In spite of having the worst assets in the industry (poor spectrum, bad coverage, low-end customers, etc) we doubled our market share in three years, and our share price went up sixfold.

The Asian Wall Street Journal marvelled at our culture. Many others likened it to Google – which was an insult as we did this at a time when Google was only knee-high to a centipede.

Our offices had no fixed seating. You could work in the cafeteria, the nearby kopitiam or even in the toilet as long as you stayed connected. And certainly, you could work from home or anywhere else if you needed to.

For me, however, home would have too many distractions; with the trees, garden, workshop, etc home is a place for me to enjoy with my family. Even then I’d have gone nuts if I had to work there for extended periods.

Obviously work from home has to be in the mix somewhere in any post-pandemic policy, but I’d go for principally working from the office with some flexibility on the home part.

The lockdowns have proven that working from home is viable, but it hasn’t proven that it is better. I think this can only be proved (or not) when the lockdowns are permanently lifted.

At my last job, I shared a desk with the CEO. What would it take to get a decision from him? Just a quick head’s up, a chat and within minutes, or sometimes seconds, we’re done. While you would still be looking up peoples’ contacts to arrange a video call, we were well on our way to implementing the decision already.

Later we’d meet for coffee at the pantry, cafeteria or restaurants around the office, where a lot of decisions are actually made, or where the foundations for such decisions are laid.

Then we’d go home and didn’t call each other unless it was an emergency.

Sure, there’s the issue of the commute to work – but if you enjoy the work and your colleagues, it’s not such a chore. And if more people work from home, your commute is even easier!

Carbon issues? Commuting creates carbon, but so does using electricity at home, and it’s likely to be more on a per capita basis.

Difficulties with childcare? Clearly this is a plus for working from home, but it’s also a double-edged sword with the constant stress of having your kids around you all the time.

It’s ironic that many communities now are pushing for kids to go back to school because of the harm of them being cooped up at home. The same logic applies to their parents, too, you know.

Given the clear psychological harm of people not interacting with each other except through video screens, do we really want people to interact even more like this?

What if you meet your KPIs regardless of where you work, you may ask. But look, KPIs themselves are some of the most difficult things to set (remember, ministers have KPIs too), and during lockdowns many are not worth the paper they’re written on.

Don’t forget those who won’t have the option to work from home – factory workers, nurses, fishermen, truck drivers, etc. The world isn’t just made of smug office workers punching keyboards and making photocopies.

With some jobs, I’m OK with people working from home. I don’t really care where you write your legal briefs or do complex analytics as long as they’re good quality.

But if you’re not there sharing the highs, lows, laughter and tears with the rest of the team, then your job can indeed be done anywhere.

But tomorrow somebody from Penang, Pakistan or Poland may offer me similar quality work for half the price.

Those are the real society-level risks. A job that can be done anywhere, can also be done everywhere, and possibly done better and cheaper too. You could be a unique, irreplaceable corporate superstar, but how many of us are?

Yes, WFH works for many people, and there’ll be more of it given the increasingly mobile, connected and risky world we live in.

But it causes new stress, creates loneliness and depression from being away from friends and physical interactions, as well as the outsourcing of jobs to cheaper places elsewhere.

The only thing I’d heartily endorse about working from home is writing opinionated columns decrying the foolish notion that what the world needs now is for people to stay home and stare at their screens even more.

Now get off this screen and go and talk to someone! - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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