Alternative Views: WFH here to stay as open-office concept bids goodbye

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 9, 2021 - August 15, 2021.
Alternative Views: WFH here to stay as open-office concept bids goodbye
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The lights in most offices have been switched off in the last 18 months. It’s quite a breeze to travel on the roads and the car parks are empty.

Instead of white-collar workers, the regular faces at the offices are the cleaners, security guards on the ground floor, and the chief executive, who cuts a lonely figure in a sprawling office. Most desks are empty, with signs saying “WFH” (work from home), meaning the person who used to sit in the chair facing the desktop is working remotely from home.

But it will not be long before employers face the delicate task of cajoling employees to return to the office. As vaccination picks up pace, more segments of the economy will be opened. At the current rate of vaccination, Malaysia should see the full opening of the economy by the end of the year.

But will offices be full again? Going by what is happening in countries that have opened their economies, it is highly unlikely.

By the end of the year, the pandemic would have been around for almost two years. After two years — if work processes have been going on with minimum disruption — it is highly unlikely that employees will flock back to the office.

Many would prefer to work from home after perfecting the art of doing things remotely for almost 18 months. The availability of high-speed broadband has expedited the process. It will become easier with the advent of 5G.

And to make matters worse, nobody can be coerced to go back to the office as long as the threat of the Covid-19 virus is still around. The emergence of new variants complicates matters.

Even those who have been fully vaccinated have been reported to have succumbed to the coronavirus. As long as the entire world is not vaccinated, the threat will remain.

Under such circumstances, what do employers do?

If the private sector is looking for pointers from the government, they are not going to get any. Going by the general norms of safety, government offices in Putrajaya should be fully open considering that more than 90% of the population in the administrative capital above 18 years of age have been fully vaccinated.

But how many government offices and counter services in Putrajaya have resumed services in full? Not many, as a drive along the empty roads around those offices would attest.

This is because of the fear that there are variants of the virus that spread faster than what people would think. As long as the rate of infectivity is high, the risk of someone providing counter services contracting Covid -19 is high too.

In the private sector, companies are coming up with different ways to accommodate their staff in the post-pandemic era.

The situations in the US and the UK — which have opened up their economies — give an idea of how post-pandemic work arrangements could pan out. In the US, accounting firms such as BDO have left it to the employees to decide for themselves how best they can be productive post-pandemic. It has been reported that KPMG, another accounting firm, has set a more regulated guideline for employees to go into the office for four days every two weeks.

Legal firms have come up with several options for partners and associates. Some have allowed WFH completely, or the associates can choose their own timetables to be in the office. Some legal firms in the UK are experimenting to see whether associates and younger people can be encouraged to come back to the office more regularly if they are given more flexibility on their holiday schedules.

Banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have told employees in the US to return to the office while Morgan Stanley is using “gentle-suasion” methods to get its staff to do so next month.

Two of Wall Street’s toughest task masters — JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sach’s David Solomon — have plainly stated that WFH is not a feasible arrangement over the longer term because it does not allow for the “learning process” between the seniors and juniors to take place, and contributes to slow decision-making.

In making some concessions to coerce employees to return to the office, Dimon was reported to have said that the open-office concept would have to be reshaped to accommodate fewer people. Places that used to house 100 people will fit only about 60 in the post-pandemic work environment.

Most offices are based on the open-office design —which replaced cubicles — to promote more interaction between staff. The temporary walls that made up the cubicles became shorter and shorter, and were finally torn down and replaced with long tables equipped with computer pods for employees.

In the post-pandemic workplace, open offices may not be suitable for fear of overcrowding. All it takes is for one infected employee to turn up for work and the office would have to be shut down.

Thus, cubicles may be back in fashion again to accommodate fewer employees at any one given time.

So far, only the big technology companies such as Google and Amazon have been advocating WFH completely in the post-pandemic world. Service providers such as legal firms are contemplating a dual concept of WFH and coming-to-office.

The bricks-and-mortar diehards such as Goldman Sach and JP Morgan want their employees back in the office, allowing only a small percentage to WFH. They are also doing away with the open-office concept.

What we are going to get here in Malaysia would probably be a mix of all those practices.

M Shanmugam is contributing editor at The Edge

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