Working from Home: physical distancing but social proximity

Working from Home: physical distancing but social proximity

During these times of crisis worldwide, there has been much talk of "social distancing". This term is regrettable, because the last thing one wants when situations are challenging and personal anxieties and tensions are acute, is social distancing. This is a time for closeness and communal solidarity. One needs to reach out to people, whether family, friends or working colleagues. The necessity is for physical distancing, but social proximity.

Flexible Working: an already emerging trend

Perhaps ironically, the trend towards flexible working, including working hours and work places, has become a significant trend worldwide.

Many large organisations have realised that it need not be necessary for all members of the team to be working face-to-face. With the right communication arrangements, reporting situations, and psychological motivations, cooperating teams can be located anywhere in town, in country, or across the world.

Increasingly, people are communicating while travelling, even in bed or bathroom. One even has to be mindful of video conferencing, in case the situation or background may not be quite appropriate for viewers at the other end of the conversation.

Work / life balance

Just as important as flexibility is the frequently quoted work / life balance that has become a feature of modern business activities. As we have grown more comfortable economically and socially, our expectations of how we should live and maintain family relationships have grown more important. When companies recruit high-flyers to their organisation, they will be increasingly asked about such conditions as working at home, informal working conditions on Fridays, and other aspects of flexible working such as formality in dress.

Gone are the days when workers only met their children at the weekend, or never saw the home in daylight, having departed for work before sunrise and returned after dark. Homes are for living, not dormitories for a quick rest between work days.

Journeys to work have become longer and more congested. In years gone by, a journey to work seldom required more than one hour each way. In traditional Paris, in France, the lunch period was generally two hours, to enable a worker to return home, enjoy a wholesome lunch with coffee and wine, and return to the office for the afternoon.

In present-day Bangkok, a typical journey to work may require two hours, with another two hours to return home. A quick lunchtime may mean consuming a packaged lunch at one's desk, or a crowded meal at a street side food stall.

It is much more pleasant to remain in one's home workplace, saving up to four hours in travel. If that time turns out to be consumed by extra work time, then at least one becomes more productive, as well as being more relaxed and stress free. Coffee break time becomes one's own time choice.

Accordingly the present crisis, although conveying much increased stress, is going to result in potentially happier and more productive workers.

Will office workers turned into home workers by government order, ever want to return to their offices? For convenience, they will not, but for social reasons, they probably will. Because in Thailand, the work situation is not only to earn money, but also to meet friends, former school mates, perhaps encounter life partners. People in Thailand are essentially communal, and social distancing is the last thing that anyone desires. The secret, therefore, of corporate solidarity is to maintain social proximity while enforcing necessary physical distance.

Maintaining corporate solidarity

The first and most important consideration for any organisation starting out on the "work-from-home" journey, is how to make the experience feel just as if one were still in the office.

That means first and foremost maintaining close contact between those who have traditionally worked together. Much of this can be done on-line, but verbal, even video contact is highly desirable. One must never leave home workers isolated, feeling that they are no longer part of the team. If one does leave them out of the picture, then they soon will be permanently lost from the team.

Most organisations have a formal reporting chart. This needs to be clarified, and every person needs to know where they fit in the overall organisation: to whom they report, and who reports to them.

They are no longer sitting in the office, but rather scattered all over town or beyond, so the organisational structure can no longer rely upon a well-designed seating plan.

In addition to merely keeping in touch, the organisation needs to keep everyone informed. Some companies fail to do this, even when people are together in the same office, but now is the time for correction. Keep everyone informed with regular, even daily bulletins, and leave no-one out of the communication chain.

Home place and work place

Now that the office worker, at whatever level, has become a home worker, there will be some need to organise things for best convenience and efficiency.

In the ideal situation, the home worker will have what is often called a "den". That means a "cubby-hole", whether a separate room or corner of the living room, where work can be done peacefully, efficiently and comfortably.

Children, now home from school in time of emergency, will invade the work area, displace and even remove vital articles or documents. Provision needs to be made to keep children at a distance yet not feel unwanted or un-cared for.

In small households or studios, having a separate working area may be a challenge, but trying to operate from a corner of the dining table is not an ideal solution.

Home working behaviour

There was a time, in some rather formal countries, when one would "dress for dinner", even when there were no guests. Nowadays one has gone to the opposite extreme, even appearing in the office in T-Shirt and thongs.

Life-style, when working from home, is very much a personal decision. However organisational experts often suggest that one should maintain at home the same kind of dress that one maintained at the office. That does not mean suit and tie, but at least a fairly working-style dress code. Appearing in pyjamas at a video conference does not gain points.

It may also be appropriate to maintain equivalent office hours, not least because there will be regular contact with other team members. It is not an example of good discipline to take mid-morning calls from bed or bathroom, especially on video calls.

Clarify actual staff locations

There may be need to receive and send physical documentation and hard copies. It is desirable for such home workers to have printers for computers and possibly also fax machines (does anybody remember them?). If messenger-services are still available and allowed to operate, companies should ensure that they are aware of the actual physical location of every worker, not just their personal email, fixed and mobile phone. It is surprising how many people with whom one is regularly in touch, do not have known actual addresses. These days, one does not even know in what country a regular contact may be located.

A final word: there will be a silver-lining

For those who regularly view international media, one could believe that the whole world is finally coming to an end, that the only people left to survive would be the inhabitants of small, isolated islands which infection has forgotten to reach.

No doubt, we will survive, but the emerging world will be very different from what existed before.

One sure thing is that many new home workers will never return to their former office desks. Some, unfortunately, will become unemployed. But others will find themselves rejuvenated and rejoicing through a newly-discovered way of work / life, so much superior to what their former lifestyle imposed upon them.

Author and Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.

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