Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

When it's impossible to work remotely: how Brazilian businesses are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

Lack of technology readiness and fears of increased precariousness in working relations are among the factors Brazilians keep coming into the office - even when they could be working from home.

As the first large developing democracy to be hit by Covid-19, Brazil is slowly catching up with the sobering reality of the global pandemic, including the impossibility of remote working.

At the time of publication, there were 612 officially confirmed cases of coronavirus in Brazil, as well as 7 deaths. Authorities in the country anticipate the number will increase exponentially by June. Since Brazil has gone for the limited testing approach, specialists argue the number of infected individuals could be ten times superior to the figures reported by the government.

Factors including lack of "proof" that Covid-19 is about to become a big issue in the Latin country and high levels of unemployment (there are 11,9 million Brazilians out of work, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) leads to resistance around working from home, despite the current situation.

"Being forced to come into the office in the current situation feels very uncomfortable. After all, the leadership is working from home", according to a Brazilian consultant, who asked to remain unnamed.

According to the professional, the company never had a flexible attitude to remote working: "The business didn't have a contingency plan for times like these - it is learning now, even though the process only involves those at the top of the food chain," he noted. However, in other companies, working from home is not a possibility, for anyone.

"Our management has always resisted against allowing us to work remotely - there seems to be a need to be looking over our shoulders and micromanage employees," a senior member of staff at a traditional Brazilian publishing house, who also asked to remain anonymous, told ZDNet. "They won't listen to our suggestions to implement even free collaborative systems."

According to Dirceu Santa Rosa, a specialist in digital law and partner at Brazilian law firm Montaury Pimenta, Machado & Vieira de Mello, the absence of a legal framework for remote working on Brazil is also unhelpful. "We are seeing masses of people who were mainly working under desk-based, traditional arrangements now having to work from home, which was until recently associated mainly with freelance activities", he noted. "The Brazilian legislation is not prepared to account for situations like that."

Santa Rosa argued that the adoption of remote working can introduce all manner of tech-enabled complications, particularly if employers are not used to working based on results delivered rather than hours spent in the office. "Companies will want employees to fulfill their contractual obligations and show up for work for a set amount of time every day, but that doesn't give them the right to, for example, install software in employees' personal computers to spy on them and find out whether they are working or not," he said.

Another point raised by the worker at the publishing house is that management refuses to allow the workforce to follow the general advice to stay indoors, even though the type of occupation would allow it because there is a sense that technology-enabled remote work may lead to increased precariousness in working relations.

"Line managers worry that letting us work from home is one step away from full outsourcing of our functions. Since they worry about their own futures, they see being physically present as a way to secure their jobs", the professional said.

According to Peter Ryan, principal at Ryan Advisory, there's going to be resistance from several organizations that have not done work from home before, despite general advice people should be staying indoors as Covid-19 continues to spread.

"Organizations that are virtualized and done this for a while, have experience in terms of managing the productivity of [employees] working from home, driving team morale remotely and have a good understanding that working from home can drive productivity," Ryan said.

"[Other] companies, whether it's in Brazil or elsewhere, that have not used the home working model often don't have the processes or the technology in place, be able to manage large numbers of people shifting from an office environment into a remote working set-up", he added.

On the other hand, employees also need to understand that even though they will not be in the line of sight of their managers, they will still need to provide value to their companies, Ryan said, but employers have to also equip staff with the technology to do so, such as conferencing software and VPNs.

The changes introduced by the Covid-19 crisis in how businesses operate could bring positive results such as greater employee productivity and more enjoyment at work, Ryan pointed out. But for companies unused to that model, the rewards will not come anytime soon: "There is going to be a big learning curve, over the course of the next 6 to 12 months - there's no question about it."