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Pandemic could profoundly change the way we work

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Remote working could be a legacy of the COVID-19 outbreak

Organisations are no strangers to business disruptions. From earthquakes to tsunamis to disease outbreaks, most companies have plans in place to ensure their business can still operate with minimal interruptions.

The COVID-19 pandemic will now test just how rigorous these plans are – it has forced governments to lockdown cities, even the entire country, keeping millions of people at home.

In Singapore, economic activities – with the exception of bars, cinemas, and entertainment venues - have been allowed to continue (at the time of writing). Although there is no shutdown per se, the government has urged employers to allow telecommuting where possible or stagger the work hours, and institute safe distancing at the workplace.

“We are going to see some lasting and profound changes to the way we work and how people are being managed with this massive pivot toward remote working. To be clear, it is not a new concept. For years, companies – particularly tech firms – have dabbled with remote working, allowing some staff to work off-site. But the government-enforced lockdowns across the world today have forced companies to adopt remote working. This is a litmus test to see if the concept works on a large scale,” noted Rick Thomas, Head of Occupier Services in Singapore, Colliers International.

Working may never be the same again

Enabled by more flexible and decentralised HR and management practices, coupled with leaps in technology, companies headed en masse into remote working relatively quickly – a shift that has even spawned a new hashtag #WFH (work from home). 

To get a sense of how massive this shift has been, look no further than how teleconferencing and chat applications have done. Microsoft Corp said on March 19 that its Teams app added more than 12 million daily users in one week, a 37.5% jump as more people worked from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. Teams users spiked from 32 million to 44 million in the period between March 11 and March 18 alone, as many more US companies instituted WFH arrangements, Microsoft noted.

"For years, companies – particularly tech firms – have dabbled with remote working, allowing some staff to work off-site. But the government-enforced lockdowns across the world today have forced companies to adopt remote working. This is a litmus test to see if the concept works on a large scale."

Meanwhile, collaboration app Slack Technologies said it gained 7,000 new paid customers from February 1 to March 18 – representing about a 40% increase over each of its previous two fiscal quarters, according to media reports.

Mr. Thomas added, “Companies have been quick to leverage technology to facilitate remote working, and based on our dialogues with occupiers, we think firms will have positive takeaways from this experience and could even decide to continue with remote working in some form, after the COVID-19 outbreak. The mass adoption of remote working over the longer term could then lead to a big cultural shift. We are tracking this trend closely and are in touch with clients to discuss its potential impact on their real estate needs.”

Remote working considerations

Having the right technology and hardware certainly helps but for remote working to function effectively – be it working from home or split locations – occupiers need to consider many other factors, first among them: which types of work can be done remotely. Colliers’ Occupier Services team in Singapore has compiled a list of considerations for companies in the implementation of remote working.

Phase 1: Preparation and activation

  • Identify which types of work can be conducted remotely and the teams involved
  • Designate alternative work locations (work from homes, alternative sites, flexible workspace centres, etc.)
  • Consider how working off-site may impact information security and data protection
  • Communicate business continuity plan to employees clearly
  • Ensure technology infrastructure is adequate to support remote working and that employees know how to use the tool

Phase 2: Fine-tuning and assessment

  • With remote working in full swing, constant communication is key to iron out any kinks in work processes, especially in the early stages of working from home
  • Employees should stay in touch with their colleagues and supervisors and be readily accessible for online discussions or to field queries from co-workers
  • Staying connected via video calls also helps to boost engagement and motivates staff
  • Trust is a key enabler: trusting that employees will do their job well even if you cannot see them
  • Remote working may suit some workers more than others. Provide more support for employees who may encounter more difficulties (e.g. those who require more face-to-face supervision or have lots of distractions at home)

Phase 3: Setting norms and troubleshooting

  • Provide a range of communication platforms for employees: emails; conference call; video chat; instant messaging, etc.
  • Raise awareness of remote working etiquette especially if business operations cross time zones. Refrain from setting up meetings at 3 am, for instance.
  • Educate employees on ways to work efficiently and productively. Encourage staff to stick to a routine, plan out their work schedule, and prioritise tasks. Develop self-discipline; allot time, set work objectives, and make checklists.
  • Practice self-care and remember to take intermittent breaks.
  • Avoid blurring the line between work and home; leave work behind when the workday is complete

While telecommuting has its own challenges, Colliers’ Occupier Services team believes that it could reap many benefits – including higher productivity, more engaged staff, and improved talent retention – if it is implemented efficiently.

Over the longer term, having a tried and tested as well as successful remote working strategy will help companies become more nimble - both in terms of their real estate requirements and business continuity.

Speak to Colliers today to find out how we can help you engineer your real estate strategy to weather uncertainty.


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