Updated: Aug 4
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic triggered a worldwide revolution in remote working as employees across the world are forced to self-isolate. A recent study1 conducted by MIT and Stanford University found that 34,1% workers have switched from commuting to working from home. But will remote working practice become the new normal? Or is it only a reactive move towards the crisis that won’t last long?
Since the birth of the personal computer, then the internet, futurists have been predicting the death of the office. According to Global Workforce Analytics2, remote work in US has grown 159% between 2005 and 2017. An online polling3 conducted by IPSOS and Reuter in 2012 revealed that one in five workers around the globe, particularly in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, work from home frequently. The polling even captured the tendency that more than 30 percent of Indonesian workers were working from home.
With people under lockdown and self-isolation around the world, the number of workers having to work from home suddenly skyrocketed. On March 30, 2020 a Gartner’s survey4 revealed that almost 75% of CFOs intended to shift their on-site employees to more remote position permanently. For companies, shifting to remote work is a creative solution of cost savings and employee retention. For many workers, remote working offers flexibility and work-life balance that have been aspired by more than 70% workers across the globe, according to global surveys by FlexJobs5 and Buffer6.
Despite the exponential rise of remote working during the outbreak and the advance of digital technology, it is still a big question whether remote working will automatically become the new normal way of working when the crisis ends. There are three reasons why remote working practice still needs a long way to go before being fully embraced by workers across industries as a permanent working habit, particularly in developing countries like Indonesia.
First, remote working does not necessarily improve well-being
A recent interview held by Vanaya to more than 100 workers in Indonesia revealed that exhaustion and negative emotions are arising during working from home. Among five basic emotions, sadness and fear are most common emotions that were felt by more than 70 percent workers who work remotely. Despite the abrupt global shift to remote work, neuroscientists observed some hidden brain traps that may hinder the benefit of remote working. Meanwhile, the United Nations International Labor Organization7 reported that a more intense work pace, the tendency of working longer hours, and work-home interference cause greater stress to remote workers.
Second, many companies face challenging adjustment
Remote working is not for everyone, and certainly not suitable for all job functions. According to a recent survey8 by the Society of Human Resource Management, more than 70% employers reported struggles to adapt to remote work. More than one-third of employers are now facing challenges to preserve company culture and maintain productivity. Many industries are also having difficulties to adapt their business operations to a remote working model, especially for those that provide professional, scientific, and technical services. An experimental study9 also found that remote working was more suitable for creative jobs. Assigning workers to do routine tasks remotely actually decreases productivity in compare with a structured cubicle setting.
Third, lack of strong and well-distributed digital infrastructure
Despite the last leg of a 13,000 km fiber-optic10 network built by the government in 2019, the internet connection speed and bandwidth are still very low in compare with global average. A very affordable mobile data cost in Indonesia, about half of what consumers in some ASEAN neighboring countries pay, is still not sufficient to boost the internet penetration in the country. The figure remains low at less than 25% of the population and is heavily concentrated in Jakarta and the country’s secondary cities in Java and Sumatera. These technical barriers inhibit the digital readiness of Indonesian workers to adapt remote working habit quickly and conveniently.
In sum, the adoption of remote working has been accelerated by Covid-19 outbreak for global health reasons. To sustain a remote working habit after the crisis passes, however, organization need to provide proper transition to their employees in terms of voluntary choice, mental and technical preparation, sufficient internet access for each individual remote worker, as well as enhancement of their digital readiness capacity. Only then, remote working may rapidly become the new normal.
Brynjolfsson, E., et.al. “COVID-19 and Remote Work: An Early Look at US Data,” MIT’s COUHES working paper, 2020.
Messenger, J., et.al. “Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work,” Joint ILO–Eurofound report, 2017.
Dutcher, EG. “The effects of telecommuting on productivity: An experimental examination. The role of dull and creative tasks,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2012, 84(1), 355-363