Opportune time for APAC firms to assess support for remote workplace

A common desire to contain the coronavirus offers an opportunity for Asian businesses that previously may not have embraced remote work arrangements to now realise the merits of doing so, and provide the support employees need to stay home as well as for those who may face difficulties working from home.

I once watched from my desk as the managing director of a Singapore-based company stood at the front of the office, a couple of minutes past 9am, and wagged his finger at everyone who walked through the door, chiding: "You're late....you're late....you're late." His scolding was somewhat light-hearted, however, he also was known to take walks around the office to see who was--and was not--seated behind their desk at 9am and would send out the occasional email reminding staff that work hours began at 9am, sharp. 

I wondered then why he wasn't as fastidious about employees leaving the office at 6pm, sharp. and feeling like I was back in school when late-comers were made to stand outside the gate as punishment.

But, that was years ago and hopefully, such employer mentality now is less widespread with the advent of remote work tools, more robust online connectivity, and cloud computing. 

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That said, there are many businesses across Asia today that still frown on flexi-work arrangements and believe a workforce not in the office isn't a working or productive one. Japan's workplace culture, notably, remains one where dwelling for long hours in the office is deemed necessary to one's performance--whether or not there's actual work to be done. 

Thanks, or not, to the coronavirus, these businesses now are forced to rethink their definition of a workplace and should take the opportunity to re-examine their HR policies to better support and, eventually, retain their skillsets.

For example, in mandating a work-from-home policy amidst the global pandemic, are companies providing subsidies to help workers offset the anticipated increase in home utility and mobile data bills? Are they also ensuring employees have the tools and equipment they need to work in a home environment? 

Twitter, for instance, this week ordered all its employees to work from home and in doing so, said it would reimburse workers the cost of setting up a home office, including ergonomic chair cushions and desks. Facebook also said it would provide childcare benefit for parents working from home and reimburse employees for internet costs. 

In enforcing a work-from-home order, however, businesses should recognise that while they can expect employees to still be as productive, they should accept that not everything can remain status quo. Some adjustments are inevitable, and this is especially true for workers with children at home--a likely case as schools may be shut during this outbreak.

I have been working from home since I took the freelance route some six years ago. I don't have a kid but I do have a dog, and it's been great having the flexibility to take her out for a walk when I need a breather from my deadlines. However, I also live alone and the responsibility of having to care for her as she ages--and now stricken with dementia--while trying to work at the same time, can be excruciatingly exhausting on some days. 

Take yesterday, for example, when she had three "accidents" and had to be washed and dried up three times, after which, the floor had to be mopped three times and soiled beddings cleaned, three times. By the time I was done, hours had passed and there were items left on my day's to-do list that had yet to be ticked off. And a day like that could occur multiple times a week, or right in the middle of a phone interview--someone needs to design a doggie diaper that actually stays on!

While, as a freelance contractor, I have the flexibility to move things around to make up for the lost time, an employer might not be as pleased about not being able to access a worker who's busy cleaning up after her dog. So not everyone has to deal with a dementia-stricken dog at home and it's something I would have to deal with whether or not I work from home. 

But, the point I'm trying to make is this: some employees will face some constraints when they work from home and, in the future workplace where remote working may be a necessary BCP (business continuity planning) measure, it may not always be business as usual across the board. 

Not every employee has the luxury of a grandparent who can take over babysitting duty while they're on a conference call. Not every employee lives in a home environment that's conducive as an alternative work environment. In the US, there are even helplines for employees told to work from home but who lack a safe home environment to do so.

In rolling out remote work policies, it isn't enough for organisations to simply provide the technology and office productivity tools; the right culture and mindset also are essential to fully support a mobile workplace. 

In Asia, that may mean guiding team leaders and supervisors to measure a staff member's productivity by the quality of work they produce, not the number of hours they're visible online. It also may mean ensuring an employee's home has access to a stable power as well as fibre network or is able to access childcare support.

I, for one, have come to realise working from home has meant a rapid depletion in my supply of...toilet paper!

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