Article: Working through the pandemic: How long can we bear?

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Covid-19 has taken the world by storm, affecting every stakeholder in the global economy in numerous unprecedented ways. From families to the civil service, to society at large, no one was spared From large multinational corporations to small, medium and even micro and nano businesses, every business has had to find different ways to survive. For the most part, people around the world did start to adapt and learn to live through the changes that the pandemic has brought upon us.

Josserand et al. (2006) highlighted that organisations are constantly under pressure to changing circumstances, and the pandemic has not only been the most recent but also one that required the fastest response to survive. The workforce has had no choice but to react promptly, and a swift adaptation to such changing conditions are very crucial for the survival of their organisation (Tushman & O’Reilly, 2013), as well as to themselves as the breadwinners of the family. These adaptations have resulted in consequences to our workforce, that require immediate action in order to prevent a deterioration in their work performance.

On 18th March 2020, the Malaysian government introduced the Movement Control Order (MCO) to contain the spread of Covid-19.
It is fair to say that Malaysians have been on a rollercoaster of emotions since then, especially when it comes to their employment. A study by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOS) reported that almost 50% of employees in the private sector was working from home; specifically, 80.8% of the employees in the Multinational Company (MNC) adapted to working from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has not only changed our approach to working. It also has long-lasting implications on how employees work and feel about work. Some of the implications are seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Work from Home Consequences.

Performance Monitoring. Each employee has different ways of delivering their work and outputs. The current situation has created difficulties for employers in managing remote workers as well as monitoring their work performance. Likewise, employees’ reception may vary significantly when they are monitored remotely. Some may take it positively while others may sense it as a sign of low trust from the management. This may have a negative impact on employee morale, and lead to a further decline in work performance. Employers should look at setting goals and targets that could be measured easily. This allows the management to work on improvement strategies in order to remedy performance issues at an early stage. An objective performance measure would be the best option. However, it may not suit all conditions. Therefore, the human resource personnel along with the management should look at performance monitoring holistically to prevent future disputes.

Being Siloed from Team Members. Employees who work from home only interact with their superiors, subordinates and colleagues via online meeting platforms, emails, and phone calls. This is not a conducive environment to build interpersonal relationships with other employees. Expectations are set when co-workers interact daily. Otherwise, they can’t gauge whether their output is comparable with others. New and junior employees will be able to grasp workplace norms and team member behaviours faster when they interact daily and in person. This allows them to better understand standards of performance, enabling them to communicate quickly and effectively compared to when working remotely. Similarly, social interaction becomes severely restricted when working from home. This creates an even bigger challenge for the employee, given the fact that social interaction is vital in strengthening job satisfaction and boosting overall work performance.

Potential Burnout. Working in an office provides a clear physical distinction between home life and personal life for most employees. When working remotely, however, employees tend to forget how to distinguish between the two. This will result in employees failing to know when to switch off from work and end up working longer hours. This in turn will result in increased stress and burnout. Employers must be able to encourage and remind their employees to take regular breaks and highlight the importance of taking their leave to unwind before getting back into action.

Enthusiasm to Build & Grow the Organisation. Every employer expects their employees to be passionate about what they are doing. While passion can be nurtured across the organization, it is often easier said than done. Having intrinsically motivated employees is an advantage. However, employers can also develop such motivation through more social engagements. While doing so is more difficult in a remote environment, employers need to find new ways to engage with and inspire more employees to have the passion to grow the organisation.

Staff Development. One key area that human resource administrators need to focus on is staff development. When they are identified as a resource or capital to the organisation, then various initiatives must be taken to grow them. This is vital to ensure that the talent is constantly developed and upskilled to face and adapt to future challenges well. Remote working hinders this initiative to a certain extent, where human resource administrators and line managers not having close physical proximity to employees can lead to difficulty in managing employee development, specifically in upgrading their skills. As an alternative, employers may encourage their employees to learn new skills through online courses and training.

Mental Health. One of the long-term effects of remote working is increasing mental health issues among employees. This could be due to, employees failing to find a routine that suits them. They struggle to have a clear separation between work and home life. Some also complain that they feel isolated and not valued for their contributions at work. Some employers allocated financial aid to help their employees set up a dedicated workspace at home. In addition, safety and health professionals encourage employees to develop work routines while at home and educate them on how to set boundaries with other household members. In order to reduce mental health challenges at work, employers should create more opportunities for employees to stay connected through regular Teams chats. Some employers have also provided guidance for employees to eat healthy food and perform regular exercise to safeguard their mental health.

The National Human Resource Centre under the Human Resource Development Corporation (HRD Corp) has recently embarked on a research to better understand and come up with proper guidelines on Flexible Working Arrangement (FWA) which would enable better governance of the mechanism. With such development taking place, we know that this working arrangement will become a permanent part of our modern lifestyle in Malaysia. Simply put, work from home is nothing but an agreement between the employer and the employee who prefers to have the choice of where and how they work. Before the pandemic, the discussions on flexible working were unclear and often debated. However, Covid-19 has forced an immediate decision and made the entire world adapt quickly, which resulted in most businesses opting to try work from home.

The battle to overcome COVID-19 is far from over. While the government has intensified its efforts to fight the disease in recent weeks, including introducing a more stringent Movement Control Order from June 1st 2021, it will still be a while before things return to normal. Therefore, work from home will likely remain as the preferred arrangement in the short to medium term. In fact, it may cease to be an option, becoming a permanent practice of modern working lifestyle in the long term. This will leave the management with no option but to address the consequences of working from home before it affects the organisation.
In conclusion, all sectors including the civil service have now adapted to the work from home arrangement and are constantly experimenting with methods and mechanisms to improve its implementation. We must not only cope but also come up with better strategies to ensure our workforce delivers while fighting to break the chain of infection. We shall, we can, and surely, we will manage both challenges effectively, together.
In the meantime, we plead to our workforce to stay home and stay safe!

Chandrakantan Subramaniam, PhD is a Research Fellow with the National Human Resource Centre (NHRC) of HRD Corp and a Professor of Human Resource Management at Universiti Utara Malaysia. He is currently the Executive Director of Cooperative and Entrepreneurship Development Institute (CEDI), Universiti Utara Malaysia.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own

Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Report of Special Survey on Effects of Covid-19 on Economy and Individual (Round 1).
Josserand, E., Teo, S., & Clegg, S. (2006). From bureaucratic to post-bureaucratic: the difficulties of transition. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 19(1), 54–64.
Tushman, M. L., & O’Reilly, C. A. (2013). Winning Through Innovation: A Practical Guide to Leading Organizational Change and Renewal. Harvard Business Press.

Professor Dr. Chandrakantan Subramaniam

Universiti Utara Malaysia

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Working through the pandemic: How long can we bear?

Working through the pandemic: How long can we bear?