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COVID-19, working from home

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By Adio-Adet T Dinika

BEFORE the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the question “What time do you knock off?” had meaning. The majority of employees had precise working hours, a clear lunch break and knock-off time.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, governments worldwide introduced total lockdowns, and everyone whose work wasn’t deemed essential or critical was ordered to stay at home. Companies were hit hard by the lockdowns, and an alternative was crafted. The concept of work from home (WFH) or the home office (I don’t mean the United Kingdom’s office responsible for immigration, law and order) became the new normal.

The immediate effect of WFH was that the boundaries between home and work were blurred. Employees moved their work desktops to their houses, and they started working from home. The immediate impact was an increase in productivity.

Employees saved much time and energy usually expended in commuting to and from work. There was no longer a need to bathe and dress up and fuel cars to go to work. One would simply roll over in their pyjamas and switch on their computers, and immediately they were “at work”. Everything held constant, productivity increased as employees could now just focus on their work right from the moment they woke up.

Flexibility was also improved as the whole “work from anywhere” concept became a reality. One could travel to visit a relative (subject to the prevailing lockdown rules, of course). All they needed was an internet connection, and they could immediately start working if called upon to do so. It was now also possible to take a call while driving, park at the nearest possible spot, open a laptop and start working (I am biased towards white-collar employees here, of course). We were all excited by this new normal and really didn’t mind as we figured the pandemic would blow over in a few months, and we would be back to normal. How wrong we were. As the coronavirus began making more mutations, the world realised that a return to normal was not coming anytime soon.

Before the pandemic, when one logged off from work, they could reasonably forget about work and focus on the social side of their lives. Except in rare circumstances, it was unheard of to get a call from your boss on, say, a Friday night. However, because everyone was trapped at home, it became easier for bosses to call or email their subordinates with work-related activities. Because the boss knew you were home and were pretty much “online”, there was no excuse. People were now working more hours than they would typically work during “normal” times. Well, for the large part, most didn‘t really mind because the work provided a welcome distraction from reading ghastly stories of the havoc being wreaked by COVID-19 across the world. According to the European Parliament, people working from home were more than twice as likely to work longer than 48 hours per week, which is the maximum working time recommended by the European Union.

Burnout has become a real issue as there really is no longer anything called working hours. Employees are now expected to be constantly online and willing to work. This has challenged existing labour regulations as now it seems there is a need for “a right to be offline”. Countries like Argentina, France, Italy, The Philippines and Slovakia have introduced the “right to be offline”. For instance, if an employer sends an employee a work-related email after working hours, they can be prosecuted. Legislators in the Netherlands are also working to introduce similar legislation. While not being an official law in Germany, several companies have previously enforced policies with the same effect.

Pre-pandemic era, an employee could come to work, sign a logbook either manually or biometrically and sign out when they log off. The exact time they have worked would be automatically recorded and known. Now how do companies ensure that employees working from their homes are working the required hours? Given data protection and privacy issues, putting some artificial intelligence applications to record hours worked might be questionable. Also, what if an employee is engaged in work that doesn’t require them to be constantly on their computer, for example, where there is need for use of a book and pen for brainstorming before typing something on a computer? Also, what about the flexibility that some employees have come to enjoy?

Will introducing a law that mandates them to work during “working hours” not take away the flexibility they had come to enjoy? Where do we draw the line between flexibility and protecting employees from overworking?

Well, there is a need for reimagining labour regulations to consider these challenges introduced by the COVID-19. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man”. Work from home is definitely the future of work as there is no going back to the pre-pandemic normal.

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