Amid coronavirus crisis, a good time to turn to teleworking

February 9th, 2020 | by Alfred Siew
Amid coronavirus crisis, a good time to turn to  teleworking
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PHOTO: Free-Photos from Pixabay

There’s nothing like a firm handshake to seal a deal, but right now, with the coronavirus crisis topmost in people’s minds, it’s probably a better idea to avoid physical contact.

With its latest code “orange” response, the Singapore government is advising organisers to cancel or defer large-scale events, while encouraging employers to enable staff to work from home, or in separate teams.

Now is as good a time as any to turn to technologies that have been around since a similar health crisis in the past – SARS in 2003 – to enable workers to keep the business going while reducing the risk of infection.

Videoconferencing can easily be an alternative to face-to-face meetings, especially ones that involve travelling across countries. No, there’s no reassuring pressing of palms involved here, but a deal is a deal, even if it’s done digitally.

Indeed, with so many transactions going online today, it should not require a whole lot of adjusting or changing of habits, unlike almost 20 years ago, when digital technologies such as videoconferencing were not as advanced.

Instead of dialling into a conference call today, tools such as Zoom and Skype allow just about anyone to connect up virtually and share their presentations or work plans.

Need an urgent call to confirm something? Even WhatsApp allows multiple parties to join in a call, though the quality may not be always as reliable as paid services.

It helps that the work machines of today are also made with mobility in mind. The latest laptops easily run on battery for more than the usual 8- or 9-hour workday, for example.

Even tablets and phones are way more advanced than what was available in the past. Wirelessly connect a keyboard and you’re firing away e-mails as if you’re in the office using a desktop PC.

Let’s not forget how well Singapore is connected as well. Thousands of wireless hotspots, including those from the free Wireless@SG service, dot the island. Broadband at home is fast and affordable, with 1Gbps speeds common today.

In truth, it’s always been surprising to many outside observers why Singapore doesn’t embrace more of the remote work culture, despite the advent of hot desks at service offices such as WeWork in recent years.

Though more establishments today offer flexible work arrangements, teleworking is still often an ad hoc effort in Singapore. In 2018, only 8.4 per cent offered formal teleworking, that is, working away from the office, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

There are reasons why people still prefer going into an office. Bosses finding it hard to physically observe employee performance was a top concern, the ministry found in a separate report.

That is certainly a mindset that has to be changed. It’s not like staffers stop working when they leave the office these days, which means an evaluation of their performance and response is always only a phone call away.

Change has to be meaningful too. It’s all fine that companies tell employees they can work from home, but managers who directly evaluate them on their performance – and decide their career advancements – have to buy in as well.

This current coronavirus crisis is now forcing people to work from home, or in separate locations. Understandably, these are temporary measures and a full rollout of teleworking needs more thought, investment and effort.

However, given the benefits of higher morale, improved productivity and cost savings, there should be plans to offer formal teleworking to more workers here.

Think of the reduction in rush-hour jams, for starters. Or the improvement in work-life balance that is so cherished yet so elusive.

The lessons learnt from the temporary teleworking arrangements during this challenging period can be applied in future. Certainly, they should be part of an organisation’s long-term transformation efforts.

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