Commentary

Post-pandemic, biggest changes will be at workplace

Work-from-home could become a norm, and worker welfare will take on increased priority

"The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. The slow one now will later be fast. As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin'. And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin'."

So sang Bob Dylan in his classic, The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Indeed, the times are changing.

A once-in-a-hundred-year global pandemic has disrupted lives, killed people, upended commerce, shuttered businesses and simply caused untold chaos to the order in our lives. And there is no telling how long this shadow will hang over the world. But like all past pandemics and crises, this will pass. And when it does, the world as we knew it will be different.

Perhaps, more importantly, how we work, play and go about our daily lives will be different.

What will this new normal look like? Most experts believe that while the worst will pass, a complete "zero occurrence" may be difficult to achieve in any country or region.

That being the case, practices such as social distancing, wearing masks in crowded places and non-contact greetings (as opposed to the handshake) will probably be the norm for a couple of years. But the biggest changes will likely be at the workplace.

For the first time, the well-being of employees could become a major corporate focus.

As the Singapore experience with imported labour has shown, the health, hygiene and welfare of workers will take on increased urgency and priority. Temperature checks at the workplace could become a daily mandatory exercise. Good airflow and ventilation will be important considerations in office design. Masks could become a fashion statement!

It is conceivable that at some workplaces, it could actually become a disciplinary or even dismissable offence to come to work with a flu or flu-like symptoms!

Another major trend in businesses will be the increasing shift towards remote deployment. In short, work-from-home could become a norm rather than an exception as it has been during the pre-Covid-19 period.

Today, around 80 per cent of the white-collar workforce is deployed under the work-from-home regime. Yet, most companies are still coping reasonably well (granted that adjustments are still being made).

Auditor Tee Yi Ti, 29, working from home under the circuit breaker measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore. Post-Covid-19, one major trend that will emerge is the growing shift towards remote deployment. In short, work-from-home could be
Auditor Tee Yi Ti, 29, working from home under the circuit breaker measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore. Post-Covid-19, one major trend that will emerge is the growing shift towards remote deployment. In short, work-from-home could become a norm rather than an exception, says the writer. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

What this crisis has taught the corporate world is that, with the right technology in place, not everyone needs to be at the same place, at the same time.

Online teleconferencing, chats, discussions, digital marketing have all sped up the journey towards a digital economy. Even deals can now be inked digitally. This could become the norm. There are several consequences of this.

First, questions will be raised about whether we can move from a five-day week at the workplace to a four-or three-day week, with the other one or two days working from home. If the appropriate technology and cyber-security regime are in place, this may be achievable.

 
 

Given that fewer employees are physically present at the workplace, hot-desking may become more the norm rather than an exception.

This leads to another consequence - a rethinking on the need for commercial office space. Can companies actually scale down floor space? Can more remote and cheaper out-of-core city locations become feasible?

Whether demand for commercial space will reduce now that we have all got a taste of working from home remains to be seen. We will know in about a decade. Also, if technology can deliver virtual video conferences and meetings, and complement in-person events, how will this impact the demand for business travel worldwide?

Most businesses will start to scrutinise travel budgets more closely, reserving that activity to only the most essential parts of the project. Airlines, which get 60 per cent of their income from business-and first-class seats, could be impacted. E-commerce and virtual services of every kind, including banking, could explode.

Demand through the likes of Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, Baozun, MercadoLibre, Shopify and others will likely take off to even higher levels. On the flip side, some segments of the retail real estate segment could take a hit.

But perhaps one of the most strategic shifts that could occur in the post-Covid-19 world of business and commerce is the shift in supply chain priorities. If there is one thing this crisis has taught many nations and their leaders - including corporate chiefs - it is that over-dependence on any narrow supply source can present strategic weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Supply chains for critical or essential products may be moved back to home countries. Countries with big domestic markets may be able to weather this change better. Smaller export-driven economies like Singapore may face tougher challenges in achieving this. Diversification and the control of supply sources will be the name of the game.

 
 

One more thing this crisis has hopefully taught corporates is the need to maintain strong balance sheets. Financial resilience and flexibility will also depend on their ability to manage their gearing. Companies that can manage at least a six-month cash flow crunch will survive. Period.

Many other changes will come beyond the workplace and the world of commerce. The world will have to cooperate and coordinate harmoniously, in spite of the politics and politicians.

Yes, a vaccine will ultimately be developed to keep Covid-19 at bay. But what about the next pandemic? Given climate change and degradation of the environment, one can safely bet on the odds of this happening.

How prepared are we for a situation, say, in 20 years that could be worse, killing not thousands but millions?

In five or 10 years, will society still vividly remember this time when the world was forced to pause? Will corporates seriously rethink the way they do business? What else must change?

This crisis has given the world in general, and businesses in particular, an opportunity to reflect, reimagine, recalibrate and reinvent. Those who do so will be well placed to tackle the next big one.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2020, with the headline 'Post-pandemic, biggest changes will be at workplace'. Print Edition | Subscribe