Pandemic-led Work from Home: Is it Sustainable?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to modify our work system in several sectors, from working in the office to working at home. With the advancement of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), some office works and meeting activities that are usually carried out offline and require a long journey can be replaced with virtual activities.
Albeit some obvious challenges, several studies have stated that working from home could increase productivity because flexible working time could allow workers to be able to adjust their own rhythm. For companies, it can also reduce the cost of maintaining working space, also related cost of office supplies. The need for commuting would also free a lot of time spent on the road, which could be channelled to productive works or quality personal/family time instead. Apart from those, the pandemic-driven work from home is also shown to improve air quality, especially in urban areas. It would be a good thing if this condition could continue without any problems.
However, this was not the case. Several challenges, such as quality of internet connection, the difficulty of detachment with personal life, and the decline of team cohesiveness, are still valid concerns, that could not be addressed by work from home policies. It is also found that humans still need direct interaction in conducting some working activities, which could not be covered by online meetings.
Innovative solutions to working patterns and systems are required to balance the benefits of work from home and the indispensable advantage of office spaces.
Flexible Work Near Home – Having the Best of Both Worlds
The pattern we propose is “Work near Home”. Similar to the previous scheme, namely work from the office, the workers would still have to come to the office. Even so, the work near home scheme would see a very different “mileage” requirement.
A challenge in the “work near home” scheme is the fact that the urban space and commercial space are generally separated by quite a distance, resulting in an ever-stressing time-consuming commuting experience. Efforts are required to close the distance and save both the time, resources (energy, money, concentration), and negative impacts (pollution, stress) caused by this.
Supporting progress that has been in the region for the last decade is “co-work space sharing”, although this has been focused on small to medium-size enterprises that lack resources to purchase and maintain their own office space. Big companies can utilise these co-working spaces to split up their units depending on their required collaboration and geographical locations.
The co-working space is important to provide the facilities missing in work from home schemes, such as the internet and other office supplies. It could also provide the required team-building aspects of working from office, without the overburden of maintaining big teams. This will result in distributed compounds in working spaces.
In this scheme, the flexible working arrangement would be critical for two reasons. First, the limited co-working space might not suit the need of all workers in one specific area. Thus, a proper “sharing” would be designed, with the office as a resource. Second, to fully embrace the benefits of work from home, workers need to have enough flexibility.
The striking difference when compared to work from office is the distribution of employees. In the work from office system, employees are concentrated in one place, whereas with the work near home system, offices are spread across several points so that employees do not focus on just one office. With the number of small offices, the development of regional development will be more evenly distributed, not only concentrated on big cities.
Green Urban Planning
On a bigger scale, the concept of “work near home” would require its own urban design. This means creating clusters in various regions, wherein each cluster, human basic needs such as housing, markets, hospitals, schools, workplaces, etc. can be met. Therefore, to go to places that are mandatory, such as offices and schools, people can go on foot or by bicycle.
For cities that have already implemented urban planning aimed at the work from office pattern, of course, this will be difficult. However, the fact that there are still many regions in ASEAN that have not been developed such as cities, this idea can be realised.
With existing technology, we can do anything in the city. Farming, raising livestock, everything can be done in the building by engineering temperature, light, and other things needed. Studies have even proven that the use of water for farming in buildings is much more efficient than conventional agriculture or plantations. This means that there will be fewer resources that must be used and more foodstuffs that will be available.
This green urban planning can reduce the energy needs for transportation and commercial buildings. Consequently, the environmental impacts of air pollution can be reduced as well. From a health perspective, the higher work-and-life balance can be beneficial as well.
To realise this, of course, good cooperation from various sectors such as industry and government is needed. It might also require large funds to revolutionise the urban planning. Nonetheless, it is one of the best changes in lifestyle when implemented properly. Smart cities are designed for optimal use of space and resources along with efficient and optimal distribution of benefits. In addition, unlike the work from home scheme, the implementation of work from the office in a smart city still allows physical interactions without requiring long distances to transport.
The energy used for farming can also be produced using suitable solar panels installed on the roof of the building, thus enabling this farm to produce its own energy. Not only plantations, but other activities will also be able to meet their energy needs by using solar panels. If this can happen, we think it is possible to realise a smart city-based work near home.
ASEAN is forming a collaborative platform to achieve the common goal of building a smart and sustainable city called the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN). Some of the ASCN Pilot cities are Bandar Seri Begawan, Phnom Penh, DKI Jakarta, Vientiane, Kuala Lumpur, Yangon, Singapore, and Bangkok. The main objective of ASCN is to improve the standard of living of ASEAN citizens amidst the many opportunities and challenges resulting from rapid urbanisation and digitalisation, as well as to increase cross-cultural understanding by catalysing profitable projects with the private sector and securing funding and support from ASEAN external partners.
Transition from WFH to WNH
Moving forward, the work near home scheme can be the innovative solution for work activities, in transitioning from the pandemic-led work from home. The importance of this transition is due to problems arising from work from home schemes such as difficulties in stable internet access, distractions at home, loneliness, difficulty maintaining motivation to keep working, and a major problem faced by remote workers is “unplugging” from work. Without clear changes in location and fixed working hours, many people have difficulty dividing their personal and professional time clearly which leads to irregular lifestyles. In addition, some people still feel that direct communication is still needed, they will also feel more appreciated by having contacts in the office.
Apart from employees, managerial sides also feel the importance of working in an office. One of the concerns is the lack of focus on employees. This has become a concern because there are some employees who choose to work in cafes to get internet access, while in cafes there are lots of distractions that can reduce focus. In addition, reduced team cohesiveness, overworked employees, etc. also occurs due to their different comfort zones for working remotely.
Therefore, if we can implement the work near home concept, the company can provide balanced conditions for employees to work and the time for them to live the life they want. They need less time to commute, which means having more time for their families or doing what they want. They can still work in the office and interact with co-workers; they can also avoid overwork because work time in the office can be monitored.