A new home to work from
A year since the first covid lockdown it is mundane to forecast a deep change in the way we work and play. But this year has thought us more than could have been obvious. We are surprised to learn that in some economic sectors working remotely increases productivity, considerably so. We are not surprised to learn that unless we learn to switch off our computers and turn our phones face down we can no longer have a proper dinner or undisturbed sleep.
We must be ready for this new economy. The government ordered us indoors to manage the spread of a virus. When the virus is brought under control – when, not if – the government should provide guidance on how we can benefit from the painful lessons we have learnt.
Remote working needs to be folded in the updated normality of employee relations and human resource management.
There should be a legislative initiative to bridge over persistent mistrust that some managers continue to have in their staff. Legislating to compensate for mistrust is not unheard of. Laws do not allow employers to install CCTV in corporate kitchenettes, by way of example. There should be laws that give employees the right to ask to deliver at least some of their working hours remotely. This should not create the obligation to accede to the request because some jobs simply do not work that way. But the request must at least be appropriately considered.
Laws and rules alone are not enough. We need to share with employers some of the community benefits of increased remote working. Reduced pressure on roads and transportation should be reflected in a reduced tax burden for businesses who require their employees to travel less.
More urgently perhaps than before the pandemic merged our dining room table with our office desk, guidelines to protect people’s right to disconnect need to, if you will forgive the pun, come on line. If you will also forgive the rather callous analogy, we all understand we can’t expect our phones to work indefinitely without plugging them into the power socket. A fresh, productive and creative employee needs to be a rested employee that has enough time away from work to interact, rest and live a complete and healthy lifestyle.
Working remotely should not necessarily be exclusively equivalent to working from home. Not all homes are suitable for work. Some homes are too small and some homes are too crowded with distractions to be conducive to productive work. That does not mean that we should miss the opportunity to exploit the technology and culture of remote working in these cases.
Why not consider the possibility of shared working nodes for people to commute on foot to work at hot desks in community centres instead of driving all the way to a central office. If we were to concentrate the provision of remote working facilities in town and village centres and combine them with child-care, sports and healthy food facilities, we’d be able to obviate the need of much of the car travel and congestion that culminates in the daily urban warfare of car-parking that we are crushed under today.
The most obvious candidate for this is the public sector that employs tens of thousands of people. Nurses, teachers and police officers cannot work remotely. But the masses of administrators can and should be given the opportunity to work remotely. There should be a target, say 30%, of all working hours delivered away from the central office.
Doing this, would create the critical mass to allow private sector employers to deploy staff to community centres shared with public sector employees. This could transform the lives of people living in the inner harbour regions overwhelmed by daily invasions of commuters. It would improve the lives of people living at some distance from their workplaces. Can you imagine what remote working hubs in Birżebbuġa, Mellieħa, Mġarr and Nadur could do to people living in those neighbourhoods and now trudging daily to Valletta or Sliema?
At this point, thinking about shifting employees from the office to their couch at home has become small thinking. Let’s think big. Let’s work more, travel less, live better and start relieving this country of its worst nightmare: an interminable, smoggy journey to the office.