Google has allowed staff to stay home for the rest of the year. Facebook has also allowed staff to permanently work from home. Is it because the companies are adapting to a new modus operandi or is this a subtle exercise to start furloughing staff?
Tech companies probably have the best advantage in being able to pivot into this work paradigm amidst the pandemic. Most companies are also going digital and some even have business continuity procedures in place. But a large part of what makes going to the office so meaningful are its perks - the experiential factors such as having a decent and professional business-front for clients (meng mian 门面), a place to facilitate employee welfare and thoughtful engagement. Besides, have you ever tried to troubleshoot a problem on the computer with someone else through the phone? The time it takes as compared to an in-person interaction is almost always lengthier and more frustrating.
So in the near term, you can say goodbye to those sleeping pods, luxurious pantries and fridges lined with free snacks, drinks and sometimes beer. Clients, visitors and employees are not going to be able to experience that feeling of taking the escalator up to the 3rd floor at the very classy looking Marina One Towers and be greeted by the uniformed concierge.
Flexi-work hours long overdue?
For some time now, we have been talking about encouraging work-life-balance and flexible working arrangements beyond the "9-to-5" regime, especially given how inter-connected we are with using Whatsapp, Wechat and now increasingly, Zoom, Hangouts, Webex, Microsoft Meetings... the list goes on. It seems like the circuit-breaker and lockdowns resulting from the pandemic has compelled businesses to evaluate this more seriously - not from a working preference perspective but out of necessity, given the draconian rules around social distancing in some cities.
I personally prefer the office setting - I enjoy my daily (and sometimes weekend) commute to the office using the subway (in Singapore) and the morning leisurely walks from Anfu Road (when in Shanghai). Before I ventured into my own business, part of the office experience included interactions with colleagues in other departments within the same building, some times we would even brush shoulders in lifts or hang out over lunch and coffee.
The cityscape and its people energizes me. I feel more productive and focused whenever I am at the office, whether alone or with colleagues. I enjoy sitting with my cup of coffee and overlooking the view outside.
Can we really afford to leave all of this behind? If so, does it also imply that we are willing to accept emptier malls and offices as part of a new way of life?
When the dust has settled, there will be increasingly blurred lines between work and home.
Face to face meet ups will never be eradicated, but flexible work arrangements will be a permanent thing. If any, video and communication technology accelerates breaking the ice in a first meeting by encouraging more upfront interaction, albeit digitally. Studies have also demonstrated that, as humans - at the very basic level - we yearn for tangible interaction because it gives us comfort and re-assurance.
Lifestyles at home over the last 2 months have definitely also changed to adapt with the circuit breaker measures. Similarly, offices will also be increasingly "re-defined" beyond the traditional cubicle and four walls. We have seen this already happening with Small Office Home Office ("SOHO") setups and more recently, the increased popularity of co-working spaces.
The office used to be a place that is defined by large executive rooms with full length glass windows, fixed sitting configurations and sometimes the iconic 'Bloomberg-styled' twin computer monitors at our desks. Office is also where the action takes place - small group discussions over coffee with colleagues, board meetings, team lunches, town halls and inter-department networking. Going back home is basically a retreat into the "untouchable" sanctuary of one's personal space. In the last 4-5 years, we had successfully blurred the boundaries between work and home, by allowing Whatsapp / WeChat to also invade our personal time.
As more work-for-home policies are being implemented, not only have we been 24-7 digitally available, but now also deemed to be also physically available while at home. I am not saying this is necessarily a good or bad thing, but
Such a paradigm shift in lifestyle will require employer and employee to exercise self-discipline and discretion to maintain or improve the levels of productivity previously seen in our traditional work environment.
Work spaces will also gradually converge with residential and lifestyle spaces. And those who prefer not to work from home may also find themselves hanging out more frequently at cafes that have stable Wifi, a good working beverage like coffee and appropriate distancing measures in place.
I agree that the reopening plans for the economy "will not be a return to life before COVID-19". But neither do I see us retreating entirely into the digital realm. Take a step back into memory lane and read the May Day rally speech by PM Lee in 2003:
"Life will not be the same again" - 2003 May Day Rally
Life was indeed not the same with additional precautions being taken, but we have certainly been through a similar situation and that did not deter us from going out. At some point of time, with appropriate flattening of the curve, more accurate testing and a stable infection rate, society will return back to normal.
It's exactly day 34 since the circuit breaker as I am writing this. Much of my daily life has been largely revolved around the four walls at the home and the view of the outside from my window.
The streets are noticeably quieter, and the reality of the circuit breaker becomes even more obvious when you step out to buy food - Instead of the usual hustle and bustle of people sitting around, the counters of the Burger King outlet near my place is lined with bags of burgers and queues of delivery drivers and residents waiting to collect their orders. Instead of enjoying my meal at the outlet, I now have to deal with the mess I make at the table at home.
I've also probably had more burgers than I should have in a week. But after 34 days at home, it's hard to have much variety (at least from my perspective).
Live to eat or eat to live?
So I missed the good old days where we ate out. Who doesn't.
I like my Japanese noodles served hot in a bowl. I enjoy the ambience of the shop, the view of the chefs in the kitchen preparing my noodles and the staff 'yelling' occasionally as the orders are taken. The taste of ramen cannot be matched by the authenticity of eating it in Japan itself, but a lot of the shops in Singapore have done a good job of trying to replicate it.
Unfortunately, this is not going to be possible, at least until June 1, maybe even longer? Who knows?
Because part of having a good ramen is the dining experience, I had so far refrained from ordering any takeout until recently.
With the number of COVID cases reported globally not abating in most parts of the world, there's always an overhanging doubt: will this eventually be a "new normal" in the way we eat? The whole eat-at-home experience also led me to realize that as introverted as you may be, dining - at the end of the day - is a very communal thing. Like it or not, without the company of good friends and/or family, eating is just eating. This is true not only for Asian civilizations but also many European cultures for example in Spain when the dinners last past midnight.
Yes, dining can be considered a privilege, but unless society descends into anarchy or another pandemic decides to wipe out the bulk of our food supplies, humans still live to eat.
Understanding this gives me a little bit of comfort that at some point of time, restaurants and food outlets will eventually come back to life once the pandemic has subsided. And I think the same applies with many other aspects of life and businesses as we previously knew it - air travel, tourism, conferences and meetings. Can Zoom and other virtual meetings replace the way companies transact with each other? Would you take a tour of the glaciers at the comfort of your computer without having to set foot on Greenland?
Because the existence of the virus is effectively challenging the very innate want of human beings to go out, interact, trade, etc. At some point of time, I believe people will figure out how to make this happen - perhaps not so much by adapting businesses to the new normal - but by figuring out how we can both contain the virus, as well as, put in place new mechanisms / procedures that will enable all of us to step out and enjoy the sun again.
PS: The takeout ramen was good.