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WFH: Is the 9 to 5 dead?

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In our not-so-distant past, offices were packed, 6pm traffic was torture and we might have tried to stay later than the boss at work to seem hardworking.

Yet, all that changed when the pandemic arrived.

Covid-19 has disrupted our lifestyles, changing the way we work, play and travel. All of a sudden, we’re a bit squeamish about crowds and masks have become the next must-have accessory.

On weekends, we wistfully look back at our travel plans (made obsolete by the pandemic) and find places to rediscover in Singapore instead, face masks on and social distancing practices in place.

On weekdays, we work from home (WFH), commuting to the office as and when necessary. As a result, rush hour traffic from 8 to 9am and 5 to 7pm seem like a thing of the past. This whole situation begs the question:

Is the ol’ 9-5 schedule about to go the way of dinosaurs as we adapt and even thrive when working from home?

The shift from 9-5 to working from home

For Singapore, how this all began was during the first wave of Covid-19 hitting us in the second quarter of 2020. With the number of Covid-19 cases skyrocketing and viral clusters increasing, the government gave a verdict: businesses which can operate and run with employees working from home (WFH) should do so, except for essential services — subject to safe distancing measures.

This meant a large part of the Singapore workforce were thrust into the peculiar world of working from home. Once seen as an optional, flexi-time privilege only existent in cooler tech companies, WFH became the new normal across the board.

Zoom meetings at home became the norm.

People had to have meetings online, with video conferencing software like Zoom or Google Hangouts gaining popularity. Micro-managing team leads could no longer eyeball their employees IRL to make sure they were doing work — and resorted to making employees report online or — as we heard to our horror — share their geotagged location.

In-person interaction was dramatically reduced, leaving extroverts craving social interaction and introverts relishing in more quiet time to get their work done without the distractions of the office.

WFH is more than just logistical arrangements. Rather, it’s a total paradigm shift that makes a mockery of old beliefs and instead, paving the way for new ones. Not showing up at the office doesn’t equate to being lazy, calling it a day at 4pm doesn’t mean bad work attitude.

The shift from 9 to 5 to WFH pushed us from a “clocking face-time” Industrial Revolution-style work culture, to something that is based on sheer productivity and results when working remotely.

The “new normal” of work

Been awhile: hanging out with colleagues over team lunch in the office.

Was this just a temporary measure in the face of the virus though? If so, workers might be raring to go back to the office and hang out with their colleagues once the transmission risks have been mitigated. Or eat pizza in the office together, courtesy of company team bonding funds.

Yet, it seems like Pandora’s box has opened — and the masses are no longer content with the restrictive 8-hour schedules of the past.

According to a survey done by EngageRocket, over eight in ten people would prefer to work from home more than 50% of the time, even after the pandemic.

Photo: EngageRocket

It seems that people are developing a taste for the freedom that WFH affords, and employers might have to grapple with that post-virus. Some employers even welcome it, citing similar or even heightened productivity, while still being able to save on physical office space rental and electrical bills.

Which is better? Office vs working from home

Ah, the age-old debate that has been tearing apart offices ever since WFH became a realised possibility. Let’s consider the pros and cons of each.

Working in the office

Despite it being much complained about, working in the office does have its advantages. Want to talk to a colleague? Just grab them by the water cooler. No need to wait for them to respond online or risk being blue-ticked or ignored.

Informally grabbing your boss for a brilliant idea? More likely when you’re in the office.

Plus, there’s a higher risk of being misunderstood via email or online chats (just cause you didn’t add a smiley!). Working IRL allows you to get the full visual cues of body language and tone that could help you navigate interactions with your colleagues or bosses better.

There’s also something to be said for human interaction being good for work culture. Remember pre-Covid times when your colleagues celebrated your birthday, or when you had an “in-the-trenches” OT session for an urgent client project?

Without coming to the office, you’d miss out on watercooler talk, informal brainstorming and the emotional connections that only physical in-person interactions bring.

You might miss in-person meetings as it’s easier to communicate.

Also, can you imagine having to explain a complex campaign brief or idea to your team remotely via Zoom — where you can’t really be sure if everyone’s on the same page. Or worse still, via a long email that took you 3 hours to type out.

For folks who lack time management skills to “ownself check ownself” when WFH, the office provides much needed structure with set times for lunch and clock-outs. It might also help you to stay disciplined when seeing others work beside you — no lounging on bed or Netflix temptations here.

On the flipside, though, not everyone is suited for a rigid, 9 to 5 desk-bound way of working. After all, what’s the point of sitting at your desk until the clock strikes 5pm, when you’ve already finished your work for the day at 3pm?

Such individuals may feel restless, trapped and unhappy when this occurs repeatedly.

And this is where WFH comes in as a possible alternative.

Working from home

This WFH thing isn’t actually new. Previously, working from home — or telecommuting — was seen as a perk or a flexi-accommodation made for people who needed it. For instance, parents who had to take care of their kids on certain days, or folks who have to double up as caregivers for elderly parents.

Now, working from home is almost the default — even if you don’t have other binding commitments at home. Along with its full suite of benefits.

You will have incredibly more freedom with your work timings (Early bird? Night owl? Whatever floats your boat). You could even schedule in a yoga sesh or two in the mornings, before the start of your work day, if you like. This could mean greater work-life balance and overall satisfaction with life.

Another obvious benefit: save money and time on the commute, plus food costs if your workplace (*cough, CBD*) has notoriously expensive options.

Not missed: crowded MRT commutes.

Folks who need to “get in the zone” to do deep work may also find themselves working better when not interrupted constantly by office distractions.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns with WFH, though. Unmotivated workers and those who aren’t as digitally savvy or have a proper setup at home could see productivity dip.

Also, according to a survey from EngageRocket, prolonged working from home could cause negative mental well-being — in part to the social isolation or the lack of support.

Actually heard: “I don’t feel like anyone is in it together with me, because I don’t see anyone!”

And just as going to office creates an office culture, WFH could inversely erode it if companies are not careful to get employees to interact formally and informally through other means.

To put it simply, whether you get more shit done and feel more satisfied when you WFH or at the office really depends on your working style and your personal preferences. And since every one’s different, there’s really no one universal truth to this question, which is better — working from home or at the office?

The future of work

As the pandemic evolves, responses from companies on work arrangements have run the whole spectrum. Companies like Twitter have declared that employees can work from home “forever” if they choose, while others like Google and Facebook are taking on a more hybrid approach.

As for my company, after Circuit Breaker times, it first evolved to a split team arrangement, with employees going into offices alternate weeks. I didn’t even see half of the team in real life for a few months!

After, though, we had a few come-into-office days if we liked, while the rest were WFH. This was more palatable, and allowed me to tailor my activities for max efficiency — complicated business meetings in office, and deep-thought creative work like writing at home, solo.

Likewise, I think the future of work is not going to be an “either/or” conundrum.

It also depends if the industry we work in suits WFH or the 9-5 better. I suspect most companies would want to strike a balance and end up opting for the hybrid approach, to get the best of both worlds.

Especially for more traditional companies and management, they have opened their eyes to new ways of work and new yardsticks for evaluating employee performance. Face time may not hold gold status as it once did; and work deliverables and timelines are more important than ever, as employees work remotely.

One thing’s for sure though: WFH has evolved from a perk to a mainstream way of life. I reckon it has changed the way we view work forever and it’s here to stay.

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