By Ajita Kadirgamar
The Work From Home (WFH) concept is not new, it has been practiced for some time in the west by forward thinking companies. Today, it has become more acceptable universally and is now the new norm for many Sri Lankan professionals too.
Implemented out of necessity during the early COVID era and extended as a result of the current economic meltdown and consequent transport issues, many Sri Lankan workplaces have had to decide just how flexible they want to be. Some have adopted a hybrid model of WFH/office.
Working from home might suit older professionals who crave a little peace and quiet but given the majority of the workforce consists of younger individuals in the prime of their life, the hustle and bustle tempo of an office environment is a vital component of the work day.
There are aspects of a physical office environment that cannot be replaced – impromptu meetings and brainstorming sessions, the sound of laughter in the corridors, friendly pats on the back, peering over a colleague’s shoulder to look at their screen, coffee, tea and lunch breaks with the office ‘gang’, catching up on office gossip, celebrating birthdays with cake, and the ever-present conviviality that thrives amongst Millennial and even Gen Z team members.
New job, new WFH model
For a segment of new hires in the past two years, working from home was their first real-world job experience, not ideal for those wanting to imbibe corporate culture up close. Take the young product solutions company @10QBIT whose offices in Colombo were launched in the midst of the lockdown chaos. Most of its new employees had been working from home since day one, and some only met face to face at a familiarisation event organised earlier this year. Home, for some of them is quite distant from the bright lights of Colombo – Badulla, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Gampola, Matale and beyond. Recent alternating power cut times have meant that someone somewhere is always out of the loop when it comes online meetings.
Subarshan Thiyagarah, Head of Partnerships and External Relations at 10QBIT, admitted to enjoying the first six months of working from home. Thereafter however, he confessed to feeling somewhat isolated and found he missed the camaraderie and team spirit that pervades an office environment.
When hired as a 10QBIT project manager, Poornima Madhubhashini had to slip straight into to the WFH mode. While she appreciated not having to endure the daily commute, she found remote work could get lonely and even communication and collaboration were challenging at times.
QA Engineering intern Delshika Gunarathne had worked in a traditional office environment before joining 10QBIT. In her case, WFH offered flexibility in her office time schedule, thereby leading to a better work-life balance. “I think working from home is very convenient especially for women, when it is connected to their everyday life, so I hope this option remains.”
Adapting to the ‘New Normal”
Safiyeh de Benoit started her first job as an intern at Magellan Champlain, a global citizenship and mobility advisory firm in Colombo, at the same time as preparing for her A’ Levels in December 2020. Sri Lanka was at its peak COVID-19 period and it was a rude shock to find out that her induction and training was to be online.
“I’m a very extroverted and outgoing person and my best form of communication is in-person. The first few months was all about getting used to relaying messages and learning new platforms and formats online. My initial expectation of my first job had been to work in a physical office environment, and I was really looking forward to the work atmosphere and the whole experience of interacting with other people in a professional sense. Nonetheless I adapted pretty quickly. It was truly an experience, and I loved the journey and the ability to grow and explore a new field of work, while having an amazingly supportive boss and team who were there for me every step of the way and made the ‘new normal’ feel not as new.”
Strict work schedules
Safiyeh found that she was getting a lot more work done at home, having eliminated the commute and when at home she had a strict schedule as to when she would clock in and out of work. “Of course, being able to do meetings in your pyjamas is the next level of comfort. However, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, as I would tend to get really demotivated at times, which made me miss the workplace atmosphere and being able to work around colleagues.”
As Safiyeh points out, the WFH method is different for everyone and there are some who prefer it and some who don’t. “I think a balance should be achieved, as while it is convenient to work from home it is not always the most productive, and sometimes people like to differentiate their workplace from their home space. Therefore, having a functioning office is a good option, where everyone has the choice of coming into work or working from home.”
Has productivity suffered with WFH?
Colombo-based Optima Designs (Pvt) Ltd. is an award winning design and print solutions provider specialising in Annual Reports for its roster of blue-chip companies. CEO Anjum Cader sees an equal number of pros and cons in the WFH model. “The pros include keeping office administration expenses low, saving travel time, and the ability to conduct meetings from any place that has Wi-Fi.”
In Anjum’s opinion though, productivity has been affected with the adoption of WFH. “The downside is that one has less control over staff input and output. The degree of focus is much less as one is not in the ‘work zone’ within one’s exclusive ‘office space’ and the necessary tech support is not there. Additionally, working from home means getting drawn into the affairs of the household during working hours, because even though they are technically ‘at work’, staff are called upon to undertake family responsibilities as they are in plain sight. In addition, power cuts affect WFH times, whilst in the Optima office for instance, we have a generator which ensures we can work, provided we have access to diesel!”
As Safiyeh points out, “From a corporate point of view, there are justifiable fears that productivity could be lower than usual. There are a lot of distractions in the home environment and employers aren’t able to keep track of the work being done. That said, a lot of businesses have realised that it is possible to operate remotely and online, and with the level to which digital technology has evolved, there are businesses that start up and only function with an online office.”
The actual business of working online from various locations has not been difficult for Optima. “In fact the transition was pretty good for us, even completing 200-page Annual Report sign-offs online. Technology has enabled smooth reviewing of text and graphics online, so this is a time saver.”
According to Anjum, virtual meetings are more focused and to the point, as opposed to physical face-to-face meetings. However, what is tricky, she admits, is the fact that communication gets diluted and person to person interaction is missing when one works online. For instance you cannot read body language accurately and it can become quite clinical.
Stay at home teacher
How can you be a teacher if you are not in a classroom eye to eye with your students? Anouk de Soyza-Situnayake, a long-standing teacher at a globally renowned English language teaching centre, had to face this strange new WFH reality overnight.
“COVID brought with it so many adjustments and my biggest learning curve was switching to online teaching. After years of teaching in the physical classroom, within a few days we had transferred onto an online teaching platform. For someone who wasn’t particularly tech savvy, this was quite an achievement!”
Though she enjoyed some home comforts like nipping into the kitchen to make a mug of coffee during breaktime, not having to wear shoes all day and not negotiating rush hour traffic, for Anouk, there is a natural ease about teaching in a physical classroom. She has always thrived on being in sync with her students and experiencing the joy of seeing them engage and learn from each other.
“This interaction can often be hindered in a virtual classroom by internet glitches (if not power cuts!) and the inability to share thoughts and ideas in the here and now. The slightest delay can result in a loss of spontaneity that a ‘face-to-face’ class has,” Anouk emphasises.
Despite the recent fuel crisis, Anouk recalls how students attended the physical classes. When asked in customer surveys if they preferred the online classes to the face-to-face classes, most replied ‘no’!
“I believe there is a future in the virtual classroom due to the convenience it offers in people’s busy lives and the crucial role it has played in sustaining us over the last two and half years. Students having a choice of either online or physical classes, a ‘hybrid’ format, is here to stay as is the ‘blended’ learning of combining eLearning and traditional learning.
However, I don’t believe it will replace face-to-face learning as both students and teachers understand so much more from each other, during shared learning or while working on projects, and by being physically in the same room!”
Hybrid cost cutting
Hard times or not, businesses are locked in to paying their monthly rent, so whether they occupy the premises or not, unfortunately there can be no penny pinching in this area. However, significant reductions can be made in electricity and water bills, janitorial services, in-house coffee and tea service and other benefits by implementing a hybrid WFH/office model. Management achieves a measure of cost cutting, while employees save on transport expenses. A win-win situation?
Though COVID is far from over, we have adjusted to living with it in our midst. From a business standpoint, the question that arises now is, ‘Will things go back to normal?’ But what is normal? Is the ‘new normal’ to be a healthy mix of WFH and office? Can we revert to a traditional model of work when we’ve experienced a liberating futuristic way of doing things?
In Anjum’s opinion, “I believe we have witnessed a generational lifestyle change that is here to stay, and we will make the best of it. It will be a hybrid version of WFH and work at office.”
What matters is that henceforth employees retain the choice of WFH alongside work from office. Whichever mode one chooses, in whatever proportions, circumstances beyond our control have provided us with a phenomenal opportunity to explore and enjoy new work models.