The Straits Times says

A digital future for work is already here

The circuit breaker measures taking effect this week aim to reduce the spread of the dreaded Covid-19 disease. At the heart of these measures is the closure of schools and workplaces, once unthinkable in a country whose business is business. Essential services aside, businesses must shift their operations from their office premises to telecommuting, with their employees working from home. That telecommuting has gained ascendancy in business continuity plans highlights how contingencies can turn previously soft options into hard choices that must be made so that enterprises can continue to function. More broadly, digital technology has moved from being a platform championed largely by the authorities to being recognised by businesses as a tool for survival in critical times. It is unfortunate that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced and led to this realisation. But the hope is that this safe distancing necessity in the short term will create economic virtue in the long term. That way, some lasting good will come from today's travails.

At the heart of enforced digitalisation is the idea of working from home. Long before the arrival of the pandemic, observers were already noting how digitalisation facilitates work-life integration. Telecommuting makes life easier for employees in far-flung suburbs of sprawling cities who can save time travelling to and from their offices. On the corporate side, flexible arrangements lead to less hierarchical and more adaptive organisational structures, values and cultures. Working remotely softens old-school attitudes prevalent among some managers which make them think instinctively that staff are not being productive unless they are seen physically to be working. Instead, remote work encourages an honour system that makes employers trust their staff and reminds workers that such trust must be earned and kept. International teams drawn from different time zones, including employees who work from home, erase the impediment of national distance in favour of economic inclusivity. Globalisation requires just this kind of openness, and digitalisation provides a key to it.

The increased use of digital technology will be critical to Singapore's continued evolution as a globalised city after the pandemic has passed. It is clear that the long economic aftermath of this crisis will be as punishing as its immediate health and social impact. Indeed, far more than the 2008 global financial crisis did, the pandemic will test the very sinews of economy and society. Instead of responding to this calamity with despair, employers and employees would serve themselves well by learning from it and using the fruits of adversity to equip themselves for the eventual upturn. Digital technology will influence the future of work in the worst of times and the best of them. It is up to Singaporeans to make the most of both.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2020, with the headline 'A digital future for work is already here'. Print Edition | Subscribe