Will COVID-19 Boost ‘Work from Home’?

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

May 7, 2020

As the world grapples to contain COVID-19, working from home has gained ground. While working remotely is possible for many, this privilege does not necessarily extend to most sectors – including healthcare, tourism and manufacturing. Workers in these sectors must visit a physical workplace and in the prevailing scenario, they are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Working from Home

For numerous multinationals, work from home is the obvious step to ensure business continuity. Big tech companies swiftly implemented remote working policies. Twitter, for instance, updated its work from home policy, making it mandatory for all its employees to work from home.

Governments worldwide have also been proactive in implementing split teams and encouraging work from home. The US government, initiated teleworking capabilities for their at-risk workers and also for those living in areas that have seen the highest instances of community transmission. 

The Indian government too was quick to respond, announcing work from home for 50 percent of its Group B and Group C staff. The aforementioned workforce was expected to be available over phone and prepared to attend office whenever required. Separately, Singapore implemented changes to its Infectious Diseases Act, enforcing stop-work orders and penalties on businesses that did not adopt work from home where possible.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) remain the worst hit as most are affected by cash flow issues. This, in turn, affects all other business operations and their long-term sustainability will depend on their ability to adapt. The majority will have to consider short-term borrowing to ease liquidity crunches. Once normalcy prevails, SMEs must operate leaner and exercise prudence in cash flow management. Meanwhile, most governments have announced stimulus packages to help brace their economies for the ensuing economic downturn.

Work from Home Advantages

Remote working has manifold advantages. From a basic standpoint, the average worker spends significant time in commuting to and from work. The resultant time savings from a work from home setup could perhaps be better utilized towards spending more family time or maybe to even pursue a secondary revenue source. Notable investors have time and again mentioned about the strong support that additional income channels can provide. Work from home also offers flexibility and it may bode particularly well for new mothers who are often caught in the dilemma of career over family or vice versa.

Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom designed a test for Ctrip – China’s largest travel company with over 16,000 employees. The outcome highlighted better than expected results, with a 50 percent decline in attrition rates. Besides eliminating common irritants such as employees arriving late or leaving early, the study found most workers working a ‘full shift’ from the comfort of their homes with fewer leaves and sick days. Ctrip therefore downsized its physical office space and saved an additional $2,000 per employee in rental costs.

The environmental benefits cannot be discounted either. Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicentre, registered a significant decline in air pollution levels during its lockdown period. It is a similar situation across the world. The economic impact has been drastic but the unintended positives that may emerge from this crisis could deliver several long term advantages. 

Ensuring Work from Home Readiness

Success in remote working lies in ensuring employers fulfil certain legal and practical considerations prior to adopting this practice. Data protection and technology policies must be reviewed to avoid intellectual property theft. Regular communication and key performance indicators must be instituted to ensure productivity targets are met. Employers must also ensure workers’ health and safety standards remain uncompromised when following work from home guidelines. On employees’ part, they must ensure a dedicated area in their homes is set aside as a work station to establish a steady work pattern. Adequate breaks must be taken just as one would in a regular workplace. Importantly, a stable internet connection is a prerequisite to remote working.

Zoom, a video conferencing app, onboarded 200 million daily users in March – a huge jump from a meagre 10 million daily users in December 2019. Its share price registered quick gains—from under $70 in January 2020 to $150 per share in March 2020—pushing its market value to $42 billion. A recent Gartner survey revealed that numerous organizations expect a large number of employees will continue working remotely even after COVID-19 is addressed. The current period is adequate time to drive major behavioural changes and with astronomical office space costs in major cities worldwide, work from home can offer the advantage of running leaner operations. 

Going Forward

COVID-19 will firmly entrench itself in history as one of the most unexpected events. While its economic impact will be long lasting, it is definitely going to usher in unprecedented changes. Businesses and individuals alike must adapt to these changes to ensure long-term sustainability.

Although physical workplaces will not cease to exist, remote working options must be better explored. Even for a real estate intensive sector such as manufacturing, operations and human resources personnel must deliberate on assigning certain roles as work from home positions. Split teams are already an ongoing practice and social meet-ups for remote workers could be organized to maintain social cohesion and to foster mental well-being.

Governments, on their part, will need to strengthen public support systems and learn from their shortcomings in the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure they are prepared to face any future crisis.