Life after COVID-19: Remote work isn’t going anywhere soon

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

It was all well working from home until I got a call one Sunday evening to attend an 8am virtual meeting the next day, an hour before normal working hours. While I still cannot fathom what an 8am meeting could resolve that a 12pm meeting cannot, I did make it to the meeting on time, with my camera off.

Other than that unpleasant experience, I sleep when I am tired, and I wake up without an alarm. Yet, I still manage to log into work’s intranet system at around 9am every morning in case someone from HR is checking, which they most probably are. This has become the new me, with my Fitbit showing an overall improving sleep score.

I am also more active than I have ever been in my life, doing more steps a day than Sunday soccer nights. This is not because of my sudden realisation that I need a higher activity level in my life, which I probably do need, but because of having six meals and 12 snacks a day while remote working.

There is also all that extra time a day as I no longer commute for two hours each way, twice a week. I, therefore, no longer spend money on hotel stays, fuel, and banana bread pudding on weekly basis. In a nutshell, I do not only get to work from the comfort of my home and to exercise more often, but I actually end up saving money doing so.

Accelerate acceptance

Although working from home has been around since the 1970s, its widespread implementation in the UAE came as part of its efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19, by curbing the number of employees in closed spaces. The implementation was gradual at first, with flexibility based on entities’ operations and needs. It then became compulsory by imposing a quota so that the number of employees from the total workforce in an entity does not exceed 30 per cent at any time.

What Covid-19 has done is shock a culture that is not accustomed to working from home, and to hasten the adoption of a concept that was half-heartedly implemented by entities before the spread of Covid-19.

Getting the balance right

In fact, and before the announcement that made working from home a must — except for specific categories — I was having a back and forth with HR on the right percentage for a work-from-home shift. Their argument was to have the lowest number possible, borrowing a number from Noah’s ark for each living being needed to repopulate planet Earth after an apocalypse.

I argued for 30 per cent of the total number in the department, at minimum, to be working from home. Right after winning that argument, working from home became mandatory for most employees, with exceptions made for certain operational jobs.

Taking to remote work

Quite frankly, we did things different anyway. On January 2, a work-from-home day was introduced in the department, with each section coordinating internally on who gets what day every month. There were two conditions that applied whenever someone is working from home. First, there has to be at least one employee per section in the office on any given day.

This was important for when more than one person per section wanted to work from home on that same day. Secondly, those working from home must be available to do the work and to take work-related calls during normal working hours. We used log sheets to track tasks and deliverables, making sure deadlines are always being met.

Our work was not only submitted on time at all times but was also of outstanding quality. In short, we started working from home before the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the UAE, and we did not disappoint senior management doing so.

We were ready for a cultural shift in the workplace that we did not plan for. Actually, we were accustomed to a culture that was alien to most entities until it was made mandatory. When it was made mandatory, HR had to accept it as the new normal, and systems were made ready to be deployed into new devices that could be taken home.

Our job was, hence, made easier.

So, is working from home going to become the new normal?

No buy in from HR

Whatever you do, do not ask an HR person this question. They would rather have you commute and be stuck in traffic before coming after you for being late by a few minutes. This comes with an absolute disregard to the overtime hours that you may be clocking in.

Whether it becomes the new normal or not, working from home has proven that time and productivity are two key commodities that should not be taken for granted. That is, spending time in useless meetings is a drag on everyone’s productivity.

The same applies to time wasted pursuing activities that satisfy HR’s bizarre attendance requirements, such as explaining why you were late by a few minutes or why did you spend five extra minutes having lunch.

Working from home has proven that attendance does not matter as long as the work is getting done. Though this is not a generic statement that can be applied across the spectrum, it surely does apply if you have chosen your people right, then trusted them to get the job done.

“Trust, but verify” is key here, regardless of who the quote is attributed to. And productivity, as a net result of the most efficient use of one’s time, is all that matters today.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: What happens when working from home is no longer mandatory?