He is the regional head of a communications company, now working from home since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic quarantine started. She is a Trust and Investment Officer in a commercial bank that has reduced and re-distributed staff to fewer branches; her work is now done from home. A CEO of two call centers works from home now, directing and monitoring her team leaders online. A solo-practice lawyer also works from home, giving virtual (online) consultations for virtual fees (effectively free!) that would have been materially receivable under a proper engagement contract. By the way, the lawyer also teaches online at three law schools.
There oughta be a law, the non-lawyers cry! We are overworked and under-compensated in this work from home mode, where 24/7 we are now on call, day or night, by and for the office. We feel exploited! The physical and mental wear and tear cancel out the supposed advantages of working at home: not spending hours in traffic, commuting to and from work; flexibility in doing your assignment or responsibility when and how, as long as you deliver expected output from you; being with family the whole day instead of barely five waking hours (when home early from work); saving money on executive raiment and accoutrements, expensive after office hours recreation and fellowship with officemates.
We don’t need new laws for our new workplace and work mode, the lawyer says. At the executive level, compensation is output-determined from brainwork (planning, organizing, leading and executing) more than technical skills and physical labor. Work hours of executives are not specified as are the eight hours per day like for rank-and-file (or 12 hours for some service work). There is no contractual security of tenure in employment of officer-level employees, as retention and promotion are qualitatively measured in terms of the trust and confidence of the company board in those in the higher levels of authority and responsibility in the organization.
Labor and employment laws and regulations as these affect employer-employee relationships and company policies and operations might have to evolve for the work-from-home rank-and-file employees. But there would be tedious disambiguation in the laws for these work-at-home rank-and-file employees and those rank-and-file employees in the same company who physically report to office premises. Working remotely works for the IT and services sectors, and not for production/operations workers in a company.
Employers would be most concerned about security control with the highly intelligent and technologically savvy, higher-paid remote employees. The ready answer of the techies would be that a log-in/log out on the computer by the online work-from-home employee would take care of administrative monitoring of hours spent, and the output of assigned work and responsibility will be the basis for quantity and quality of work done, as measured and recorded on the computer. Security measures embedded in the exclusive technical design of the company online system will safeguard against tampering with inputs and the data file by the remote employee.
Unauthorized access to layered information will trigger alarms in a well-designed and secured company IT system. Encryption software and remote-wipe apps on devices provided by the company are available, or outsourced virtual private networks can also encrypt data and provide secure access to a remote computer over the internet. These would keep files and data secure yet accessible to work-at-home staff. Employers of work-at-home staff have little to worry about information security risk, in this digital age, experts assure us.
Employers could be enjoying more advantages than their remote staff on the work from home modality urged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Except for the nagging fear of loose control over work-from-home workers, employers have enjoyed the leniency on their doing business while respecting general health restrictions. Calling on force majeure, businesses downsized operations and reduced staff — some even totally closed shop temporarily and some permanently, to cut losses. Even after the heightened restrictions of the Expanded Community Quarantine (ECQ) were downgraded midyear last year to General Community Quarantine (GCQ), businesses continued with their limited operations and staggered staff who were asked to come in only five days a week, every other week, as an example. A restaurant manager was asked how his compensation was affected by this. “No work, no pay” was his tearful answer. He was suffering a 50% pay cut. No choice. Better than no work at all. The waiters suffer the same fate, where their P600 per reporting day would be effectively cut to a measly average P300 per day minus transportation. But they are not work-from-home employees.
That some businesses have already stopped operations and some drastically cut operations down in the harsh scourging of the pandemic would surely imply painful and lasting lessons learned in the trial by fire. Will businesses ever go back to the same practices towards the same objectives and strategies, after the pandemic restrictions and the New Normal is really normal?
It was only last week that the initial batches of vaccines arrived in the Philippines, and symbolic vaccinations on seemingly hesitant health workers were heralded on national television. Almost half of Philippine citizens are not inclined to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot mainly due to safety concerns, according to a survey by pollster Pulse Asia in January. Still, the government aims to vaccinate around 60 million to 70 million of the 109 million population in three to five years; the government is capable of vaccinating only 20 million to 30 million Filipinos a year, the “Vaccine Czar” Carlito Galvez announced (Rappler, Nov. 25, 2020). Does that mean the New Normal would become normal in three to five years yet? The paranoid common people would probably feel that way, and the astute businessman will keep that in mind as a planning parameter on which way his business should go.
Businesses that have undergone downsizing will have realized how lean and mean operations can be effective, and they will henceforth more carefully proportion marginal costs with increasing net profits. The formulae have been loudly suggested by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The concept of “work from home” has been entrenched in the past year, as an efficient and effective way of carrying on the business in a time of physical restrictions of movement and presence. In fact, future hiring of employees will not now be hampered by physical accessibility of office premises to the work-from-home employee, who can be residing in another province, or even living abroad. And perhaps businessmen will now think offices do not have to be in the big cities. Imagine the traffic decongestion on the main thoroughfares in the metropolis!
At the height of the ECQ and the total lockdown, the Lenovo global study revealed that businesses surveyed in the Philippines already required 26% of their employees to work from home as part of the mitigation measures against the virulent flu. In the United States, the number of those regularly working from home had grown by 159%, and the same increase is mirrored in other markets. Technology has been extremely helpful in creating availability of jobs and opportunities despite the isolation and restrictions on both employees and employers. Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, the Telecommuting Act, Republic Act 11165, was signed in 2018 so employees can work at home or remotely outside the workplace. Quietly, the nation’s “gig economy” that thrives on recruiting workers on a flexible and freelance setup via online platforms has risen to the rank of No. 6 in the world, with a 35% increase in freelance income year on year, per the Payoneer’s 2019 Global Gig-Economy Index report.
As the New Normal eases the anxieties for health and survival, there would be the clearing of minds and the acceptance of inevitable change. It is already a changed world, even now.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.