A New Normal – adapting to work life within four walls

Tan May Lin - Head for Singapore Business and Customer Service Operations at Epson Singapore

Without doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic is by far the most profound disruption to work life on record. As remote working has evolved from a nice-to-have, to a fundamental requirement, the Singaporean workforce is experiencing massive changes to the way they work, with most working within the four walls of their own homes.

To some extent, this may represent a paradigm shift in future work environments – with studies including Owl Lab’s Global State of Remote Work reporting that flexible working arrangements can be beneficial to employee productivity, and raising the possibility that we may witness an increasingly remote workforce becoming the new normal after the COVID-19 dust settles.

However, while the pandemic proves that a virtual work environment is an option for most organisations, there is no denying that adjustment will be needed from employees and employers. From learning to juggle a mix of work and home life, to the difficulties of having our lives restricted to the footprint of our homes – there are significant challenges to overcome if we are to succeed in working beyond the traditional office.

Work-life balance

While there are many benefits to working from home, remote workers report feeling as though there is a significant bleed from their work to their home lives. Without the legacy boundaries of the office, the 9-5 workday has become  blurred, with data from NordVPN showing that the average USA employee now logs an extra three hours of work per day.

The effect of COVID-19 means that our homes are forced to adapt to become work and productivity centres, with the average worker now juggling the issue of remaining productive, along with the challenges of working from a non-conventional office space. In addition, this scenario forgets the many distractions from family or partners working within the same four walls.

With this in mind, this may be a chance for us to take a leaf from our freelance employees friends, for whom flexi-work has been a reality for some time. Notably, many freelancers actually advocate following the same routine as a normal workday – such as establishing set working hours, delineating a set workspace and incorporating transitions in and out of your work routine.

We may also see a change in work culture stemming from the rise of remote working, with the office becoming less of a mainstay in employee’s lives. Expectations in relation to work-life balance may also improve, with employers taking a more hands-off approach in the management of employee time. With these changes, employers should also avoid unrealistic expectations of remote workers, and adhere to normal working hours for communicating over email or messaging apps. This, along with a solid work-from-home routine, can go a long way to preventing employee burnout during this inordinately stressful period.

Re-establishing the home office

Thanks to teleconferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, as well as the advent of technology like VPNs, most firms were quickly able to transit into remote working once the situation required.

Despite this, growing pains remain. For example, many of us quickly realise that traditional office infrastructure is no longer available to help perform day-to-day tasks. With some office equipment no longer available, those working from home may have to rely on their own equipment to tide them through this period.

At the same time, this may represent an opportunity for many to establish and set up a proper work environment at home to help alleviate some of these issues – with many predicting that this “massive work-from-home” experiment will open up flexible working options in the near future, investing in affordable but efficient equipment such as inkjet printers or scanners to outfit a home office for those who want to take advantage of flexi-work options on a more permanent basis.

In addition, the office equipment provides the added bonus of benefiting the whole family – from other flexi-workers, to students, to bored young ones who are simply looking for amusement.

Keeping the team spirit alive

Even as Singapore tentatively takes steps to resume normal life, with the recently announced phase-approach to exit the circuit breaker, we can expect remote working to remain as the default standard for most businesses. This may bring forth a new style of leadership that works best by fostering connections and communications, despite the lack of physical proximity.

Research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that employees who work from home are less motivated, compared to those who work from an office. To this end, as managers adapt to managing teams that are scattered across the island, they may find a novel challenge in leading employees when in-person interactions are not an option.

Remote work requires extra communication to bridge the physical gap, and with the bulk of communications taking place over text, there is always potential for misunderstandings to take place. Managers should begin to incorporate the practise of checking in from time to time on team members to evaluate how they are doing, and if in doubt – the phone is always an option.

In addition, we may also see safety and social distancing measure redefine the way meetings and business interactions take place. With physical meetings strongly discouraged, technology will play a big part in how business relationships are cultivated, with teleconferencing and other interactive technologies such as projectors smoothing the way to new forms of business interactions.

While this situation is unprecedented, it’s worth noting that this level of remote working would not have been possible 20 years ago during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and other Information and Communications Technologies, many of us have at least been able to successfully transition as much as possible – and with this pandemic altering society as we know it, perhaps it is time to adapt to this new way of working.