Commentary: Why some workers in Singapore are eager to return to the office
SINGAPORE: In what must be unprecedented in work history, Singapore has suffered the biggest work-from-home exercise, thanks to COVID-19.
What the government has fought to encourage employers for years has been achieved in just weeks by the pandemic.
With companies forced to institutionalize work from home (WFH) or be penalized for not following health rules in the event of a pandemic, many have struggled to figure out how to do business without any in-person interaction.
It was a steep learning curve. Laptops have replaced desktops, internet connectivity (and family relationships) have been put to an extensive stress test, and everyone in the country now has a Zoom account. Without alternatives, we were forced to adapt and quickly saw that the WFH had enormous benefits.
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We saved on travel time and transportation costs. We worked in pajamas and did less laundry. With a flexible schedule, I could go to the gym at 9 a.m. and have tea at 3 p.m., as long as my work for the day was done.
Personal finance comparison site SingSaver did a calculation for two of their employees and found that working remotely helped them save between S $ 400 and S $ 600 per month.
The benefits also spread to businesses as they reduced office space.
DBS Bank plans to divest approximately two and a half floors or 75,000 square feet in Tower 3 of the Marina Bay Financial Center. Citigroup and Mizuho are also reducing space thanks to the success of working from home.
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But we have to be clear on this dream scenario where everyone is productive and happy to work in their bedroom. While the government announced that working from home will remain the default on Wednesday (July 7), many workers like me are anxiously awaiting the day when we can return to the office without any warning.
For me, it was about managing four kids at home, switching between their home learning needs, space constraints, and stable internet connectivity that made me want my old office.
I experienced the last factor firsthand when there was a blackout in the middle of a webinar I was hosting. This would never happen in the office – even if there had been an outage, a back-up generator would have started.
The reality is, most of us weren’t born multitasking and need some distance to focus. The Mind Science Center at the National University Health System (NUHS) conducted a survey in 2020 and found that 61% of people working from home said they felt stressed, compared to 53% of frontline people.
IT project manager Valerie Lim was one of 1,407 people interviewed. She juggled work productivity, managed her son’s home learning program while keeping her youngest daughter busy.
With three of my children in elementary school, me too, like Valérie, I necessarily took on the role of teaching assistant every morning of the week. Some days I get more messages on Parents Gateway and ClassDojo combined than from my colleagues.
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Stress isn’t the only thing that irritates people who are jaded about working from home. Space constraint is a major problem. When we first bought our apartment in 2016, my wife and I planned the use of our domestic space around how we wanted to live, with little hope that we would have to work in the exact same location.
I had no choice but to work on the sofa, dining table, and even the bed when I needed to be in a quiet space for a meeting – which is awful for work. I learned the hard way that this was no way to work with a relapsed back problem after sitting in the hard dining chair for four hours straight.
It’s no surprise that Senior Physiotherapist John Abraham of Rapid Physiocare reported a significant increase in the number of WFH injuries from the circuit breaker.
ARE WE MORE EFFICIENT?
Sure, polls show we’re more productive when we work from home, but I wonder if that’s because by saving time on commuting, we’re just converting that extra hour into work. It’s not uncommon for people to start at 8 a.m. and not leave until 7 p.m.
But while we can do more just because we spend more hours working, are we really more efficient?
I spend more time playing whatsapp / slack / email ping pong just to accomplish a small task. At the office, I just walk over to my colleague and get things done in less than 10 minutes. The same drill can now be as long as a tennis match with a back and forth of emails and messages.
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Experts have long said that without face-to-face communication, we have very little to help us discern what the other person is trying to tell us because we can’t see the expressions or hear the tone of voice.
Without these clues for clarification, we often “fill in the blanks” with assumptions and assumptions that lead to unnecessary and time-consuming misunderstandings or communication problems.
Overall, communication has become much more tedious in the context of the WFH.
The other thing that has taken a big hit is the ideation. The Zoom experience does not allow people to raise their points quickly (there is a built-in shift function to prevent talking to each other). There is something about painting ideas together on a whiteboard that makes creative ideas easier to achieve.
This sense of collaboration and creativity is dead when we are not in the room to discuss, to disagree and then to reach consensus. Zoom meetings are also often dominated by the one person whose job it is to bring a project to fruition.
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But the most important thing that we greatly missed while not in the office? Socialize.
Aristotle said that “man by nature is a social animal”. According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, the lack of social connections increases health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or abusing alcohol. She also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as bad for physical and mental health as obesity.
When I asked my LinkedIn contacts what they lack in the office, over 700 professionals said they were eager to get back to the office, and 60% said they mostly missed socializing.
Most adults were lucky enough to experience this aspect of working life before COVID-19 hit. Much less fortunate are the new graduates and new hires who have no chance to meet their co-workers or talk to people along the hallway or in the pantry.
I realized how much I missed lunch with colleagues – just for an hour or two – to unload myself and discuss our shared experiences made the work experience better, one of the reasons I’m happy that socializing with your colleagues in groups of five be allowed again from 12 Jul.
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Of course, COVID-19 will not go away just because we have decided to live with it. And we will still have to adhere to safe management measures in the workplace like the hat of five (sorry sixth colleague) and wear masks all day.
Recently, Apple sent a note asking its employees to return to the office three times a week as America ends its battle against COVID-19.
In response, some employees backed down. Their letter started from a Slack channel for “remote work advocates” with around 2,800 members.
The surprise is that only 2 percent of their workforce insist on not returning to the office. For the remaining 98 percent of Apple’s total workforce, perhaps, coming back a few days a week is a much-needed desire to reset a most abnormal work experience.
For my part, I would really need a good office and some peace and quiet at home – so that I can work.
Adrian Tan is a Future of Work Strategist at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals.