Why the coronavirus is testing how companies work

Businesses and employees are facing an inflection point in the work-from-home debate

18 février 2020

Companies confronted with the coronavirus outbreak across Asia are encouraging employees to work remotely, setting up a test for what many consider a key tenet for the future of work.

In Singapore, business continuity plans that push working from home kicked in when the government shifted the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition into a higher gear. In Hong Kong, working from home due to risk of infection simply prolonged many companies’ stances following political upheaval last year.

While Chinese factory workers recently returned to work, many office workers are continuing to work from home, which is being encouraged by the government amid travel restrictions.

“A lot of people are talking about this as a massive work-from-home experiment, but really it’s more of an inflection point,” says Ben Hamley, Future of Work Lead, JLL Asia Pacific. “While the idea of flexible work has been bandied around frequently and implemented in some firms, especially in tech companies and start-ups, the coronavirus forced many industries in Asia to begin this exercise en masse.”

The decisions come as work-from-home policies are increasingly debated within organizations. Technology makes it easier than ever, but there are concerns over hard-to-analyze impacts like the value of spontaneous, face-to-face interactions.

“Companies, managers and employees are now faced with what it really means to sustainably and effectively maintain work quality, compatibility, co-operation, collaboration and co-ordination, as well as behaviours usually seen in the office – all the while being at home,” Hamley says. 

Rethinking trust and work culture

Some firms and employees are already finding this a challenge. Chinese employees complain about the level of mistrust from their superiors as they are made to “clock in” at home such as sending selfies every 30 minutes and being instructed to reply to work matters within 10 minutes. Others cite the social pressure of going into office and the worry about not being able to meet clients.  

“It is a time of uncertainty and there will be some nervousness. Employees need transparency and clarity from managers on expectations and the tasks that need to be done,” says Hamley, who wrote previously on the topic. “With that, employees can be more accountable. Employees, too, need to realise that trust is a two-way street and that with autonomy comes with responsibilities to keep employers reassured.”

The right tools are also essential to build trust and open communications. Technology has vastly improved the quality of video conferencing, cloud services and collaboration platforms. As 5G networks become more prevalent, real time collaboration and communication could be done even more seamlessly.

“The suite of technological tools at our disposal is wider than before and we have better infrastructure to support them. The question is whether companies are able to utilise them effectively and educate employees on best practices to minimise friction,” Hamley says. “For instance, switching from emails to more open platforms like Microsoft Teams would allow communication to be more visible.”

Implications for corporate real estate

Nowhere is the impact of working from home more felt than in office buildings. The once bustling business districts of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are noticeably quieter. 

Just as the rise of the gig economy has supported working remotely, if the working-from-home model prove tenable, corporate real estate could be reimagined and reconfigured accordingly.

“We’re just starting to see the first implications of working from home on a large scale,” Hamley says. “But the need for human connection and collaboration will always be there.”

So while the design of offices and ways people work will continue to evolve, there will always be a demand for physical social spaces to facilitate communication with fellow workers and for organisations to build a sense of belonging and connection.

The office isn’t going anywhere even if working from home becomes the new normal.

“How your people work is how your company works,” Hamley says “Corporate strategy for this coronavirus situation or otherwise can be a human experience.”

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