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Pinoy Kasi

WFH: Boon or bane?

/ 04:05 AM December 02, 2020

I recently popped into a furniture store to get some chairs and went through one of the most excruciating experiences I have had with customer service, or its lack thereof.

When I walked in, the sole clerk was “busy” with his cellphone, and it took about five minutes before I got to ask him about the kind of chairs I needed. He brusquely pointed, with his nose, to the second floor to say there were chairs up there, then went right back to his cellphone.

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When I finally chose some chairs, I went back down to tell him what I had chosen and, rather than go up to the second floor, he showed me photos of various chairs to ask which ones I had chosen. Then it took him half an hour to prepare the receipt. I actually went to a restaurant next door to order food and got my order before his receipt.

I told my son the clerk was probably not very bright, not familiar with the computer, and he laughed out loud: “Dada, it took him a long time because he was playing games on his phone in between preparing your receipt.”

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Another one, I thought, for my growing collection of what I call WFH hangover stories — WFH meaning work from home, a synonym being remote work.

When COVID-19 struck, millions of people were thrown out of work. The lucky few, still several millions, were those who were able to keep their jobs and to work from home. In the Philippines, the largest single employer—the government — kept regular workers on the payroll, which automatically went into bank accounts whether or not there was a W in the WFH.

Many offices have opened again, but there still are large numbers of people, including myself, who are WFH. Teachers are probably the largest sector doing WFH.

Is the future with WFH and remote work?

Not quite. The McKinsey Global Institute has released an analysis of remote work in nine countries, mostly developed ones, and concluded that different types of remote work will persist in the long term, but mostly for “a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce.”

This could well aggravate existing inequities, because those with lower levels of education, while initially benefiting from WFH for the general population (the government in particular), will have to go back to working on site, in offices. Even more disturbing is that many of these jobs will face risks of being phased out in the near future, as the jobs are automated.

All this means that our schools and educators need to reexamine existing degree programs and curricula to increase the chances of graduates being able to do remote work. Going into this preparation will be computer literacy, no longer just being able to do word processing or a spreadsheet but also able to handle data analytics. WFH will require a different set of thinking skills. So-called critical thinking will not be enough; “higher-order” thinking skills are needed, mainly the ability to synthesize information, including being able to throw out garbage data.

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Our experiences in the Philippines with WFH does point out to something just as important for schools, and this is changing our work culture and work ethos. The lockdown ended up as a vacation for many people whose work just could not be done at home. Others could do some of their work at home but found themselves handicapped by not having a supervisor to tell them what to do. When the lockdown was relaxed and they returned to work, you could see the difference, like the furniture store clerk who clearly hated having to return to work.

Mind you, this WFH hangover cuts across classes and across companies, from microenterprises to large multinational banks, and it’s worse with the large companies because the inefficiency of a few can affect thousands of people.

In a way, I’m glad I’ve been writing columns for the Inquirer for 23 years now, which is WFH even before the word was coined, complete with the discipline needed for new ideas and topics and tight deadlines. I can tell you, too, it’s become harder through the years with so many more distractions.

But the day of reckoning will come. Shape up, or lose your WFH privilege. Back to slave labor with masters cracking the whip, if we want to be dramatic about it.

A word for employers, too: If you decide to WFH and leave your business to a clerk addicted to games and phones, then you’re not ready either for the new world. Boon or bane? You choose.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Michael L. Tan, Pinoy Kasi, WFH, work from home
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