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Pandemic has quickly changed the workplace

By BO LEUNG | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-09 10:42

A man works at home in Shanghai on June 30. [GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY]

Since the United Kingdom's prime minister announced in March that the nation would introduce a lockdown to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus, many people have been working from home.

The pandemic forced the change and workers had to settle into a new way of working.

"The pandemic has certainly forced a lot of employees to work in a setting which they are unfamiliar with and, for some, this is a welcome change," said Clare Lyonette, a professor at the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick in Coventry.

For others, working from home has not been easy. Some have had to juggle work while facing the challenges of homeschooling, childcare and domestic work.

Many have created work spaces in cramped conditions, with little or no outdoor space and poor internet connections.

"This will surely have a negative effect on individual wellbeing and job satisfaction," Lyonette said. "It is unlikely that the majority of those employees in this position will welcome remote working in the longer-term and will be keen to return to the workplace as soon as they can."

Working from home has also highlighted some gender inequalities. Lyonette said initial research showed that the pandemic gave men the opportunity to "share the burden that women have been carrying for decades in relation to care and housework".

But evidence suggest that women are still taking on the majority of the childcare and domestic work while also working from home and their male partners continue to work the same hours as before.

"This is causing inequality in women's longer-term progression opportunities, and is likely to disproportionately increase their risk of job loss in the longer-term," the Warwick University professor said.

As the lockdown eases and offices and shops start to reopen, some companies and employees will be evaluating the way they worked before the pandemic and asking whether there should be more flexibility in future.

Lyonette said giving people a choice is crucial and if workers can work from home on occasion, it is "likely to provide a win-win for both employee and employer".

"Many of the benefits of flexible working are indirect, in that they do not demonstrate a direct benefit to the employer in financial terms, but if an employee is happy with his/her work-life arrangements, this is likely to have positive knock-on effects in terms of increased loyalty, commitment, productivity, etc," she said.

According to a survey by Theta Financial Reporting, 57 percent of people do not want to go back to normal working, in a normal office with normal office hours, after the lockdown ends. And 24 percent of British workers say their employer has not explored flexible working options with them or their colleagues ahead of a return to work.

Lewis Endlar, a teaching fellow in business at Keele University in Staffordshire, said working habits were already shifting before the pandemic hit, but the lockdown has accelerated those changes.

"We are seeing what is called 'revolutionary change' and that change is not only fast-paced but 'big impact' change. The COVID-19 crisis has definitely changed the landscape for industry and business, and, of course, for employees as well … What we see now are organizations looking at the current situation and they are planning and adapting for the future and the need to 'recalibrate work'," Endlar said. "We have definitely seen a reset of work, we're seeing the application of technology to support that but we're also going to see some big changes and I think the changes were already coming in to some extent, such as with artificial intelligence and more robotic technology that is being adopted by organizations and will continue to be."

Endlar said, for employers, remote working can mean significant cost savings.

"They are starting to recognize they can do this and still operate and therefore if it makes sense to reduce the workforce, when it comes to office space then that is going to be an advantage," he said. "Employers can also outsource individuals rather than have full-time employees. So, what you actually start to see is a shift from a permanent base of staff to a more flexible type of staff. "

For employees, Endlar said working from home means travel costs are reduced, and there is the flexibility that comes from being in a comfortable environment at home.

While working from home may open up opportunities for some, Lyonette believes it is unlikely that all businesses will see remote working as a long-term solution for everyone.

"The majority of people will have greater freedom during their working day and will start to realize some of the real benefits of working from home for at least part of their working week," she said. "For others, the lack of availability of a good working space and poor internet connections at home will act as a deterrent to longer-term remote working."

Endlar added that a lack of face-to-face contact is a problem for workers who value "social interaction".

"They like to go to work and meet with colleagues and we're starting to see this has a big impact on some workers, which can lead to stressful situations and it can maybe lead to lost opportunities for promotion in employment," he said.

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