WFH isn't for everyone
With contributions from Edwin of PowerAbsolut and Justina for Edugrow for Brighter Tomorrows
7 Feb 2020 almost seems a lifetime ago.
It was the day Singapore upgraded her disease outbreak status to DORSCON Orange, in response to what the world would soon know as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19. As COVID-19 infection numbers rose, governments all over the world began to impose quarantine, lockdown, movement control measures to limit community spread. Singapore started her own “circuit breaker” on 7 April, recently extended till 1 June.
With travel curtailed and workplaces closed, Work-From-Home was no longer good Business Continuity or a fashionable hashtag. WFH was now non-negotiable. Schools also closed, so students now had Home-based Learning, or HBL.
Organisations began getting licenses for video conferencing software, communication platforms, productivity tools.
Mobile learning and edtech tools saw increased uptake, as training could no longer be done face-to-face.
Organisations began social-sharing their teams doing video conferences. Photos (and videos!) of video conferences, encouraging messages and memes started to grow, as #WFH started to trend.
While most of us are taking WBL/HBL in our stride, there is starting to be cabin fever/fatigue as lockdown periods get extended.
There was the odd joke about how COVID-19 was a conspiracy by video conferencing software companies/food delivery platforms etc. Some comments were in really poor taste — snide remarks about teachers celebrating that they could slack, folks living in mansions or large apartments complaining about how they couldn’t find a suitable place to ‘focus’ to work.
Worse, some started to flat-out disregard Stay-at-Home advisories and venture out, turning ‘grocery shopping’ into family outings, and driving to different parts of the country to buy food or ‘exercise’.
#WFH isn't for everyone
I’m using this op-ed to highlight that even as some might tire of #WFH, it is in fact a PRIVILEGE enjoyed by just a small part of our societies, and in many cases, only the higher-income and white-collar segments of our workforce.
Most of us are aware of F&B and retail businesses for whom WFH is a near-to-impossible option. There are in fact many others. I canvassed some perspectives:
Engineering: Contribution By Mr Edwin Wong (CEO, PowerAbsolut)
“In the engineering sector, WFH may be applied where work is instructional, administrative, design, e-commerce, etc. Meetings and reviews can be done via video or phone, but these are not the core money-making activities to begin with.
In marine engineering, WFH is virtually irrelevant. Production, maintenance, repair, troubleshooting, survey all necessitate onsite presence. Shipbuilding, fire systems certification, ship surveys and inspections, GPS system installation etc. all require physical presence and very often, congregation. Such work requires physical interaction with machines and other stakeholders. These are the revenue-generating activities which cannot be executed from a remote location.
The Singapore government has been helpful in NOT imposing a full lockdown or enforcing WFH across the board, which will otherwise seal the fate of many engineering businesses. We need the entire society to help us. Please listen to the health professionals, comply with the government, change our social behaviour to keep everyone safe.
So that those of us whose work nature do not permit us to WFH, WILL NOT BE LOCKED DOWN. The more the outbreak is contained, the lesser the restrictions, the sooner we regain our footing.”
Healthcare: Contribution by Dr. Wong (Working in a private clinic)
“Healthcare is an essential service that is still open to provide emergency services. Many perceive that it’s business-as-usual for private healthcare providers, far from the truth. Non-urgent or elective procedures that form a substantial portion of our work cannot be done, resulting in significant loss of revenue. Yet we continue to honour our commitment to staff, paying full salaries, and taking this time to train and re-train ourselves.
Private healthcare providers have been taking extreme precautions to safeguard the interest of their patients, as well as healthcare staff who are at highest risk of getting COVID-19, where examining patients require close contact. Most healthcare workers have no option to work from home.
We are totally in alignment with MOH and the Government’s call. Stay at home and flatten the curve. Avoid crowded places like wet markets and supermarkets. Healthcare workers cannot battle this virus alone. Collectively, every resident in Singapore must play their part. Then things can go back to normal for all.”
Social Sector: Contribution by Ms Justina Quek (Programme Manager, Edugrow for Brighter Tomorrows)
While our children take to platforms like TikTok seamlessly, HBL is, unfortunately, not done via the social networking app. When MOE first announced moving to a month-long HBL, Social Service Agencies island-wide like us had to scour around for devices for our children. That was the first hurdle.
Next was the knowledge and skills gaps in typing, or navigating the various e-learning, video conferencing, and shared drive platforms. These are still considered “easy” problems with “easy” solutions.
The more challenging struggles are the environmental factors; whether it was the lack of a proper study space (such as a table and chair with proper lighting), or a lack of structure (as opposed to being in school), or even simply a lack of the privilege of quiet. Regrettably, many things the more privileged amongst us take for granted becomes more pronounced during this period of WFH.
Nonetheless, this period also serves as an opportunity for us at EduGrow for Brighter Tomorrows to bridge that very gap with the children we work with. In enforcing HBL, our children have to learn to deal with browsers and tabs, pick up basic typing skills, and have found a use for the microphones attached to their earpieces. They have learnt to take ownership of their own studies and set their own time tables.
While we cannot change their environment, we can empower our children to adapt and become more resilient. We walk step-by-step with children who need the extra assistance or an extra push, to ensure that no one gets left behind — or fall further behind. WFH or HBL aren’t great nor are they ideal. But, like our children, we can learn to work with the hands we are dealt with.
So in summary, #WFH is not a privilege easily enjoyed by:
Our healthcare heroes, our F&B, hospitality, delivery, supply chain & logistics colleagues, our security staff, our cleaning colleagues, our carers of young and old, our machinists, technicians and engineers, our construction workers, our law enforcement officers, and soldiers, our persons-with-disabilities in the workforce — for whom technology “as-is” may not be sufficient to help them to #WFH.
It's a PRIVILEGE to be able to Work From Home.
COVID-19’s impact is still playing out, as our healthcare workers and scientists work tirelessly to combat the virus.
We all need to play our part — washing our hands, social distancing, and staying home as much as we can (see this excellent video by Jeremy Goh & Steven Jap).
No-one knows how long the outbreak will last. No-one knows how the world will be after, only that it will be changed.
Some of these changes are good, e.g. WFH and flexible work arrangements. I hope they stay even as our world returns to normal. We’ve also seen great leadership from some countries and companies, and acts of selflessness and heroism.
At firm level, we play our part in two ways:
- Collaborating with creative educators like The Dim Sum Warriors to create digital educational material that educate the public (children & adults) on COVID-19. Knowledge about how the virus spreads and what we can individually do to mitigate is the best weapon against community spread. TL;DR — Stay Stay Safe.
- Helping firms to digitise training material that empowers them to remotely #Upskill staff for the #Upturn (which WILL eventually come), at scale.
WFH is really a PRIVILEGE we should not abuse.
I hope my fellow contributors helped put our #WFH “woes” into perspective.
In the short-run, the Singapore government’s 3 Budgets provide a lot of short-term support for families’ and businesses’ cost pressures. But this cannot last forever and we all need topline (salaries, revenue) to kickstart the economy’s flywheel again.
So the more that those of us who can WFH do so, the more we can flatten the curve; and the sooner that everyone can revert to a more ‘normal’ arrangement — to visit our loved ones, eat our favourite foods, run and play outdoors.
With everyone playing our part, we can overcome these worst of times… with the best of times.