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Network News • 01-10-2020

The pain and pleasure of working from home

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 1 October 2020

With most office staff in the financial services and banking sector working from home, now for the seventh month running, one cannot but reflect how our lives have changed dramatically.

We cannot ignore news about the penurious spread of coronavirus. This news of a spreading pandemic fills the media waves making our subconscious feeling depressed and bereft of inspiration.  On the international scene, we note how large operators like Facebook announced that it would allow as many as half of its nearly 50,000 employees to work from home permanently, following some smaller tech firms such as Twitter.  Experts tell us that the crucial challenge of remote working depends solely on the ability of managers to maximise productivity from remote workers.

Certainly, traditional control processes may not apply. Management practices must change for an organisation to get full value from telecommuting staff.  This means that with all good intentions and best endeavours, companies believe that the teleworking performance will never match that which occurred when office routine was the norm.  Efficiency and productivity suffer in the long run.

In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) forecasts that the global economy will expand by a mere 2.4% in 2020.  It notes that rich economies are expected to grow at roughly the same uninspiring pace as they did in 2019.  A continuation of the global slowdown in manufacturing will also drag down growth worldwide. For many in Malta, the pandemic created hardships and staff are counting the days until they can return to the office. Others, however, are finding their groove – and have discovered they really are more productive and happier when working from home.

The secret to successfully working from home is to treat your “working time” as sacred.  It will be important to show your employer that they’re getting the full value of your time. One of the most frequently cited challenges reported by seasoned remote workers is the worry of being “out of sight, out of mind”.  Pre-pandemic, the few who worked from home could easily become invisible and drop off of their managers’ radar. Naturally, the problem is magnified now that the number of remote workers has grown so dramatically.

Compounding this challenge is the reality that local business leaders (not so directors in public service) are distrustful of the virtual arrangement.  In many cases, it is because they’ve not yet mastered the art of effective objective setting, check-ins, offering support and holding workers accountable remotely. In other cases, they’ve been let down by people who’ve taken advantage of the situation.

There are also concerns that the lack of serendipitous encounters with office workers could stifle creativity and reduce team cohesion. School closures during the first and second semesters, meanwhile, have placed an extra burden on working parents.

No one can look into a crystal ball and know exactly where they will be next year. But if we want to be in a better environment (possibly buttressed with an effective vaccine), we must make smart decisions not to slacken our resolve on social distancing as advised by the health authorities. During this tale of woe, we have witnessed political leaders constantly vying for attention reminding us that the sun will soon shine over the cloudy days that lie ahead of us in the winter days.

Little do we empathise with the thousands of elderly locked in care homes, vulnerable people and pregnant women hardly daring to look to the future in these dismal times. It is in the spirit of solidarity and other Christian virtues that we must support them in their temporary isolation as advised by the health authorities.

The bitter pill is the routine to face the boredom of staying indoors and contemplate their lack of mobility and human interaction.  The picture we get from the media is that there is no way we can avoid drinking from the poisoned chalice of a pandemic – it comes with no known date of closure. It is then, up to our political leaders to think outside the box and in a non-partisan manner endeavour to minimise the burden of suffering among all and sundry.

This is a time for a call for common sacrifice, burden-sharing and a cohesive national policy.  We have thousands of healthcare workers and other public servants putting their health and lives at risk to treat those infected both now and in the future.

We have teleworkers denying themselves not only the benefits of comingling with other office mates but feeling stressed due to the confinement of homes.  The coming 2021 budget is expected to reduce electricity tariffs, trim vat and slash duty on fuel (oil and LNG prices are down to almost 45%) apart from other welfare increases to mitigate the loss of earnings and cost of living increase.  Part of these budget proposals will reduce the cost of home working.

A lot of sacrifices have been taken by companies to retain staff: in fact, August unemployment went up by a mere 2,000. Can we succeed in keeping the commerce afloat over the coming winter? Not unless furlough workers continue to receive a wage supplement.

Large hotel chains have recently placed their workers on a two-day routine in an effort to reduce their winter operating costs in the most pragmatic way.  Be that as it may, we also have other home-grown nuances. With an ageing population, a growing trust gap between politicians and ordinary people, the lack of adequate investment in physical, social and economic infrastructure render the Covid19 challenges formidable.

Taken together, this social anomaly is generating a time bomb for inequality. Economists tell us that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home – so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers.

At the same time, those unable to work from home – either because of the nature of their jobs or because they lack suitable space or internet connections – are being left behind.  The latter face bleak prospects, especially if their skills and work experience erode during a winter shutdown and may fall into the poverty trap.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 1 October 2020
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