Almost two years have passed since the COVID-19 virus was first identified. We have since seen organisations bustling to digitally transform its operations – to support their remote workforce – with many forced to adapt to new ways of working to ensure business continuity.
We are still no closer to our return to work full-time given the new complications from the delta variant.
For Singapore, while the government has announced that up to half of employees can return to the workplace from the middle of August, some companies have opted for a more cautious approach –preferring the work-from-anywhere approach or bringing back a lower percentage of their workforce.
In Malaysia, restrictions on returning to work on selected industries were lifted only in July, with a possibility that more Delta cases may necessitate another lockdown. In Thailand, where vaccines are in short supply, only 29 out of 77 provinces allowed businesses to operate again from this month.
This constant state of flux begs the question then of what the future workplace will look like for the workforce. Will we ever be able to return to the office full-time in 2022?
Will we have to continue with our work-from-anywhere arrangement? Or will organisations incorporate a more fluid style of a hybrid working format with their workforce alternating between working from home and the office?
Concerns over the future hybrid workplace
On whether the current state in APAC suggests that organisations are more cautious and not as confident of managing the risk of infection if employees return to work, Samuel Higgins, Principal Analyst at Forrester says organisations are more confused about what they should be focusing on.
You want to put the employee experience at the heart of your plans. To do this, the questions you must ask are ‘What is it that your employees want to do and what are they willing to do?'
- Samuel Higgins, Principal Analyst at Forrester
“Our research shows there can be an overt pivot towards trying to do things like embrace the vaccine passport or demanding that everybody gets vaccinated. These could be reactionary responses which are driven from the nature of what we're doing with the pandemic. The rules are always changing,” said Higgins, speaking to ITNews Asia on this difficult issue that businesses face in reopening.
“We'd never had a pandemic. Some of the issues that arise with the lack of data, and with mental health and safety – all these issues would have come about with the increasing use of AI and robotic process automation. However, it would have happened over a longer timeframe.
“What COVID has done is made the concerns more acute. But because it's so huge, it's very easy to lose sight of what you want to do with the return to work. You want to put the employee experience at the heart of your plans. To do this, the questions you must ask are ‘What is it that your employees want to do and what are they willing to do?”
Challenges to overcome
One of the biggest challenges that Higgins shared with establishing hybrid workplaces would be ensuring that people coming to the office won’t be spending the entire day on video conferences with remote colleagues. Conversely, people in the office could also revert to old habits such as writing on the office white boards that remote workers cannot see.
“Organisations need to aim for punctuated opportunities for collaboration and creativity. This could mean alignment of days in the office but with greater flexibility of hours. But ultimately, people need a reason to come to the office. This could be in the form of new spaces, new technology and new habits,” added Higgins.
“There would be less hot desking and more collaborative spaces or hybrid spaces. The challenge for most firms is that the collaborative space is something shared between IT and facilities management – often the 'audio visual' aspects we now rely on have been a hot potato of investment tossed from the CIO to the CBO (Chief Building Officer) and back again. So we need co-ordination as the great reopening gets underway.”
Importance of experience parity
Higgins revealed that an important issue when it comes to focusing on employee experience for workers in the office and those following the work-from-anywhere model is the experience parity between them.
“A lot of people before the pandemic would report that it was okay to work from home as they were more productive. However, they didn't feel like they could collaborate with people,” he explained.
“Organisations must invest in technology to ensure that the employee experience between ‘anywhere workers’ and ‘office workers’ are of similar parity.
“If that's not achieved, what we'll see is a sort of boomerang effect where people who don't want to come into the office end up coming in more than they want to. There's this real subtle play here between what is the ideal mix of in-office and remote work
“If organisations have decided to commit to anywhere work, are they also committed to making the investments? I can’t say right now as we don't have enough data at the moment. But I'm fearful that in Asia Pacific, if we won't make those investments, there will be a boomerang effect of pushing people to leave and find better roads.”
The hybrid workplace in APAC
Moreover, Higgins highlighted that one of the unique challenges in APAC is that many firms in places like India and the Philippines have invested in purpose-built secure campuses and high availability facilities.
“Sadly even if firms provide a stipend they simply are not able to match this level of service in remote locations with poor infrastructure. This is where government investment and digital stimulus is both needed but also useful. Even in the US’s multi-trillion dollar package they have included further expansion of broadband internet connectivity. Now is a great time for nations to build much needed and highly productive infrastructure," said Higgins.
“Another challenge for us in the region is that much of the GDP in APAC is driven from manufacturing. We estimate that less than 35% of workers in these industries can adopt an anywhere work model.
“Furthermore, we have also observed in our recent Forrester Analytics Business Technographics® Workforce Survey, 2021 that most people in APAC are keen to return to the office – no doubt in part due to infrastructure but also the high levels of extended family living and shared spaces impacting on personal productivity goals.”