Make it work – 10 Jul 2022

IN the early 2010s, I began work with a PR company writing for their clients in the hospitality and tourism sector in Vietnam. I had lived in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City so I knew the sector and its players. The company had a physical office and staff in Hue, but the rest of us worked from the US, Taipei, Bangkok while I was in Karachi. It wasn`t called Work From Anywhere like it is now but the man who set up the agency said it was the future of work.

When the pandemic hit, I was reminded of my former boss` prescience and genius but was surprised to read a piece in the Harvard Business Review saying the first WFH (working from home) policies were adopted in the late 1970s because of soaring petrol prices caused by the Opec oil embargo which made commuting very costly.

`Workers were often also given control over their schedules, allowing them to make time for school pickups, errands, or midday exercise without being seen as shirking,` it said.

With the advent of personal commuters, the internet and cloud computing, WFH increased in the 2000s and of course gained prominence courtesy the pandemic.

I can`t deny the flexibility and work-life balance my PR writing gig gave me; the workflow and communication then done over Google and Skype was smooth. That experience helped prepare me for lockdown and was made easier because prior to the pandemic, during the 2019-2020 academic year, I taught on Zoom with professors in Kenya, the US and Canada. I was prepared for remote work except for the feelings of isolation that it brought. That`s something the pandemic hasn`t `fixed` which is perhaps why so many offices want employees back in the office all over the world.

However, there are many that don`t: In the US, companies like Twitter, 3M, Lyft, Reddit, Spotify and Coinbase switched to permanent remote or hybrid options. Tata Consultancy Services, a global IT services company says it plans to be 75 per cent remote by 2025.

Work from home during the pandemic has given birth to a range of new ideas.

Two Dutch lawmakers proposed a bill last month to make WFH a legal right which if passed this summer would make Netherlands the first country to grant work flexibility by law.

Countries whose economies were ravaged by tourism during the pandemic have launched digital nomad visas for remote workers. Indonesia is the latest to begin work on offering one for `techpats` ie remote technology workers. In Europe, the opportunity has gained ground with Georgia, Croatia, Estonia, Norway and Portugal offering residence permits for remote workers providedthey can prove X amount of monthly income.

Granted such schemes favour the relatively well-off worker but such schemes benefit economies in the long run.

How is Pakistan faring, especially as its economy seems to be gasping for breath? Are companies enacting WFH policies taking ground realities like petrol prices into consideration? Having spent a majority of my life working in Pakistan, I find it to be one of the most worker-unfriendly countries where governments protect their rich business friends and ensure unions are `kept in their place` Organising in private firms may as well sound a death knell. All employees are left to fend for themselves and dare not speak up for fear of losing their job. HR departments by and large exist to placate owners or the men on top. Whether you`re employed in a family-run business or a fancy corporation, the seth ethic runs deep.

It is worth looking up the union in your workplace or organising to create a union at your workplace to take up the issue of remote working, a raise in wages, better healthcare,paid leaves, worker safety, etc.

Pakistan`s labour laws allow workers to join unions.

I understand the burden of WFH falls on the person at home who may save on commuting costs but will pay more to workat home (costs to run ACs, computers, phones etc). However, I believe the rise in fuel prices is an unprecedented one and makes remote work, despite the aforementioned, a better option for companies and workers.

Companies can offer work-from-home stipends to help mitigate the burden. The aforementioned Harvard article said there are many studies to show that WFH increased employee engagement which is an important metric for an organisation`s success. Happier workers are more productive.

A majority of folks in Pakistan are overwhelmed by anxiety brought on by the burden of finances. The state bears some responsibility in mitigating the problems caused by past incompetent and peopleunfriendly policies. They can encourage businesses to move towards remote/hybrid working and offer incentives. I understand WF H is not possible for all organisations but smart management should be thinking about what is needed to make it possible. I am certain my former boss was right in 2010:thefuture is here.m The writer teaches joumalism.

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