IGF 2020 WS #330 The Future of Work from Home: Internet Governance Post Covid
It is clear that the concept of ‘work’ is among the many things that will never return to normal even after the COVID-19 pandemic has fully subsided. While many employers within the information economy initially rushed to formalise their work-from- home policies in order to adhere to social distancing measures, sectors even less familiar with remote work, such as retail, have also been increasingly experimenting with online-only operations.
The migration of retail and other service sector operations online could harm workers already vulnerable to economic hardship, including those with less digital skills or educational attainment.
Work-from-home (WFH) arrangements also raise questions about how employers will measure employee productivity and whether these efforts may entail harmful extensions of workplace surveillance. More work conducted over the Internet also enhances the possibility of cyber-attacks and can create new privacy risks.
Opportunities and harms
Many work-from-home studies have shown that productivity goes up as employees enjoy the flexibility of working from home, and this is a trend that will continue, said Ms Karen Kocher (Global General Manager of Talent and Learning Experiences, Microsoft). Kocher also noted that personal and professional life is integrating, which is a tricky challenge for people to manage, thus affecting the well-being of employees.
At the skill level, the immediate thrust into working digitally has led people almost unprepared and hence employees need to make more effort on upskilling their employees for a digital future.
It is also important to bear in mind that policies need to be in place to protect the lower-level service sector workers who are nearly jobless in the remote working environment, said Ms Helani Galpaya (CEO, LIRNEasia). WFH highly privileges knowledge-based and creative work, thus creating imbalances.
There is also an interesting phenomenon when it comes to men doing gig work and staying at home, as it can be looked down upon in some cultures, while it may be totally acceptable for women as it allows them to balance it with their traditional roles.
Remote working will also bring in a discussion on how do we define ’value’, as it may not just equate to sitting in a chair for x number of hours, said Ms Becca Williams (Principal Consultant and Owner, Thought Distillery).
Internet connectivity is still the primary challenge for the Global South according to Galpaya. She added that Asian and African countries lag far behind when it comes to ICT connectivity. In India alone, pre-COVID connectivity of households was just at 21%. The number of laptop ownership is as low as 6-3% in India, Bangladesh, etc.
The pandemic triggered a lot of Internet adoption which was one of the primary issues in the billions who were unconnected. There has been a considerable effort to make the Internet available and affordable (especially in the Global South), but adoption is still about 20-30%. While governments need to make regulatory and other efforts to increase access, corporate actors need to step up as well. Kocher noted Microsoft’s program named ‘Airband’ that connects 1.2 million underserved people.
There is a new wave of challenges that WFH brings where we lack the nuances of human interaction, and lack unplanned interaction, said Ms Carmel Somers (Human Capital Strategist, Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet).
Social cohesion is very important. How does one achieve that in a remote environment? It is also important to give people/employees some purposeful and unplugged reflection. Such social well-being mechanisms need to be designed into the workforce now that this is becoming a long-term play. At Microsoft, Kocher noted, ‘’team agreements are used’, where managers sit with their teams and draft norms around when they need meetings, as who will be there, etc.
We cannot just assume that WFH is the new normal without putting some focus on it and how it will work. It is important that leaders walk the talk and that organisations need to make planned efforts to navigate this. Large organisations need to voice connectivity issues stronger as that will now benefit everyone. Even small scale organisations and manufacturers are increasingly dependent on digital value chains, payments etc., so regulation and access need to come together to facilitate not just the digital world but also the analogue tasks that can benefit from a digital way of doing things.