If there was one statement emerging from our collective experience of the past two-plus years was the refrain: “COVID-19 has taught us many lessons.”
When people say this, they are often referencing the modifications we made to the conduct of business, the delivery of educational services among others. They also cite how we can easily embrace the benefits of technology, even if we stubbornly rejected them in the past.
One of the most significant transitions emerging from the pandemic was the advent of remote work. Many knowledge workers who can essentially undertake most of their work requirements from a laptop, have indeed practised remote work for many years.
It was not a problem for employers for a knowledge worker such as someone working in administration, media, legal services, or insurance to complete various tasks at home after hours rather than staying in the office late into the night.
This was the norm for persons who “took the office home” on weekends to conduct work-related functions that could not be completed in the regular 8:30 to 4:30 schedule. While this is generally regarded as not ideal and contradicts the notion of a good work-life balance, there was hardly any push back from management because the aim was simply to “get the task done”.
When the pandemic came along and began impacting us in a devastating way in 2020, some of the country’s largest employers, particularly in the financial services sector, declared how ready they were to smoothly transition from the office to having employees work remotely.
The utility companies, insurance companies, and some financial institutions closed their doors to protect staff and clients. They immediately moved to delivering services online and doing the necessary telephone calls to follow-up on the transactions and respond to customer queries.
Car insurance certificates were emailed, while premium payments were accepted online. In fact, some Barbadians can boast that they have not seen the inside of a commercial bank or their insurance provider in two years, as all their interactions have been with automatic teller machines, laptops and smartphones.
Conducting meetings and conferences via Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, Meet Now, and other conference management sites, have become a natural course of business.
In May last year, president of the Caribbean Employers’ Confederation (CEC), Jamaican Wayne Chen, made a convincing call for employers in his homeland and across the region to “embrace the flexibility of remote work” in order to become more productive and globally competitive.
The respected businessman said pointedly during a virtual CEC panel discussion: “We have a psychological hang-up in Jamaica about control, so that change in mindset will have to take place before we can get the full benefits of any change in legislation and regulation to flexible working arrangements.”
We would suggest that this obsession with control is not a Jamaican phenomenon but grips employers across the region. Ironically, some of the big North American corporations that promoted remote work are now beginning to pull back. It is being argued that the need to have employees in the work space means that managers have become useful again and justify the use of high-priced office complexes and rental fees.
Here in Barbados, Mr. Shane Howell, a former president of the Human Resources Management Association, said out loud, what many of us have been thinking for quite some time.
We appreciate that not every job is capable of being undertaken remotely, but there are several knowledge-based occupations that can be undertaken quite productively at home or in hybrid arrangements.
This offers major cost-savings for companies who spend less on office supplies, electricity, water, office equipment and probably office space rental when all their employees are not expected to be in the office every day of the work week.
Howell, in addressing a Barbados Employers’ Confederation (BEC) symposium this week rightly argued that it was a mistake to abandon the flexible work arrangements that were instituted during the pandemic.
As Howell noted, during “pre-COVID-19, persons wanted to have flexible working hours, but companies said no. Then COVID-19 happened and literally within days it was now possible.”
Now that the pandemic has abated, we join the HR specialist in lamenting the “sudden and quick reset where employers said, ‘I’ll see you on Monday’.” It shows how quickly the pandemic lessons have been forgotten.