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Remote Work: How a ‘Perk’ Became a Tool for Survival

Quarantines and lockdowns brought on by COVID-19 have kick-started what Bloomberg calls 'the world's largest work-from-home experiment.' Working from home – also known as working from anywhere (WFA), remote working or telecommuting – is nothing new, of course; it is the suddenness and scale that have attracted the world's attention. Enabled by extreme advances in technology, remote working has, in fact, become increasingly popular both with workers and employers, for its effectiveness in lowering costs as well as boosting employee productivity, retention and satisfaction. 

Uneven adoption

The pace adoption for this worldwide trend has varied from region to region. At the forefront is South America, where workers are 67% more likely to hold full-time remote jobs. In the US, 52% of workers spend more than half their workweek outside the office, and one in 20 are full-time remote workers. In the past 10 years, 83% of US businesses have – or plan to have – implemented flexible work policies. This is to accommodate the 80% of the country's workforce that says they would turn down a job that did not offer that option.   

With notable exceptions (a slim majority of Japan's companies allow their workers to telecommute at least some of the time), Asia has been slower to adopt work from home policies. According to the 2020 Hays Asia Salary Guide, a mere 37% of the region's companies let employees work at home at all, even though 57% of employees say this is their top flexible working option when considering a new position. Before COVID-19, China lagged even further. In 2018, this country with a population of 1.4 billion, had fewer than 5 million remote workers. 

Why the disparity?

In some of the slower-to-adopt countries, the answer is obvious. Efficient remote working requires a fast and reliable internet connection, so if the infrastructure isn't there, working remotely would slow down rather than boost performance. However, in China and many countries in Asia, this is not usually the problem. Instead, it boils down to a work culture which sees time-at-desk as equal to productivity. It is a culture that gave birth to unhealthily long hours and overvaluing 'presenteeism' (coming into work even when sick or non-productive). 

In Malaysia, the average worker works longer hours (an additional 15 hours per week), sleeps less and, as a result, is at greater risk of physical and mental health issues. Ironically, presenteeism makes workers less engaged and productive during long hours than they would be on shorter workdays, resulting in 15 times greater loss of productivity than absenteeism.

In addition to misguided priorities (valuing time over results), there tends to be an ingrained belief that workers only perform when closely supervised. Finally, there is that old enemy of progress, a simple but powerful fear of change. As we will see in a further article in this series, all these fears can be mitigated with robust remote work policies. 

Emergency adoption

A great majority of Chinese companies that have recently implemented work from home policies did so not because of its benefits, but because they had no choice. A virus appeared seemingly from nowhere, and immediate action was taken to prevent the spread; including putting 60 million people under full or partial lockdown. Even in less affected areas, precautions were taken – half the population of Beijing opted to work from home. Needless to say, companies that had no experience in offering flexible work options were taken by surprise.

It is vital to remember that the vast majority of people under lockdown were perfectly healthy. The only thing stopping them from working was, in fact, the ability to go into the office. Workers and companies scrambled to find ways to maintain business continuity. Unfortunately, having never done the kind of research required to implement best practices such as using unified communication platforms, they relied largely on task-specific piecemeal solutions which hampered what could have been a seamless transition from office-based to remote communications and collaboration.

On the first day after the government-extended Spring Festival (Chinese New Year Celebrations), Huawei affiliate WeLink strained to cope with 120,000 meetings on their platform. A similar spike had teams at WeChat Work scurrying to repair network glitches and expand server capabilities as millions of users 'flooded in for its teleconference function.'

Better prepared

As of yet, Malaysia is not among the countries officially imposing quarantines or lockdowns. However, emergencies that could force remote work are not unprecedented. Late last year, the ministry of health urged that people in the Klang Valley be allowed to work from home because toxic smoke from the haze posed a threat to commuters.

As the next article in the series will show, benefits to employers make remote work a smart and profitable move. In addition, if haze, a virus or anything else crops up that makes remote work a necessity rather than just good strategy, companies with a robust policy in place will have a competitive advantage as they hit the ground running. 


More in this series:

1.     Remote Work: How a ‘Perk’ Became a Tool for Survival
2.     Allowing Employees to Work Remotely: Eight Benefits to Employers
3.     Ensuring Business Continuity: How to Set Up an Effective Remote Work Programme


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