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Philippines’ months-long lockdown forces firms to embrace remote working

As Metro Manila has endured nearly 80 days of “community quarantine,” a digital transformation is allowing more employees to work from home.

Image via South China Morning Post. Image via South China Morning Post.

Before much of the Philippines was placed under coronavirus lockdown in mid-March, working from home was an alien concept to many employees.

Yet as Metro Manila neared its 80th day of “community quarantine,” some of the country’s largest firms will emerge from it more open to embracing remote work—even if the going was tough at the beginning, and some industries have struggled to adapt.

PLDT, the Philippines’ largest internet provider, had no experience of implementing a wide-scale work-from-home scheme before the pandemic. To continue normal operations during the lockdown, it was forced to issue laptops and personal computers to all its employees and pay for fiber optic internet connections to be installed to their homes.

“Collaboration has always been a key thrust within the organisation and the previous mindset was that it was highly contingent on meeting face-to-face,” said Jovy Hernandez, senior vice president and head of enterprise business at PLDT.

“However, by adopting a work-from-home scheme for ourselves, we now realize the real value of technology and digital platforms in helping us communicate and work together while at home.”

Hernandez said the past few months had been so transformational that the company is looking to implement remote working until the end of the year for most of its 17,000 employees—becoming the first publicly listed firm in the Philippines to do so. Organizational processes have been expedited and the length of meetings cut in half, he said, with the HR team now studying which departments can work from home for good.

UnionBank of the Philippines is in no rush to bring employees back to its headquarters, either.

“We have proven that we can run our operations remotely, so we are not in a hurry,” said Michelle Rubio, the bank’s chief human resource officer.

Some teams were already being encouraged to telecommute on a case-by-case basis before the pandemic and the company had been preparing to introduce a wider program as a means to improve employee wellness and productivity, but the shift to remote work since the lockdown was nevertheless “quick,” she said.

Despite this, many of the bank’s employees, when surveyed, reported being better able to focus while working from home, as they no longer had to worry about commuting. The result is that “moving forward, telecommuting will be part of [the company’s] regular work arrangement,” even after the pandemic is over, Rubio said.

Not everyone has found it so easy to adjust to the “new normal” of remote work, however.

Nearly one-third of the country’s business process outsourcing (BPO) industry is currently classified as “unproductive” by the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines, as employees are unable to report to work because of the lack of public transport. Only 200,000 or so—about 15% of the industry’s 1.3 million-strong workforce—work in their company’s offices. The rest telecommute if they can.

Read this: The advent of voice-enabled tech amid social distancing

Call centers have likewise been struggling in Japan, where a fear of coronavirus infection has reportedly taken a back seat to data security. In an interview with Reuters, eight of the country’s 250,000 or so call center operators described fears about working conditions at their respective companies, with reports of employees squeezed into crowded offices where they sit less than a meter from their colleagues without any partitions.

Japanese companies have been reluctant to embrace telecommuting, with some fearing a decline in worker productivity and customer services, while others cite data privacy concerns.

Although the inherent risks of remote working are “very challenging to mitigate,” Bryce Maddock, CEO of Philippine BPO firm TaskUS, said his company was committed to “doing everything we can to ensure data security, while also protecting the lives of our teammates.”

The company was one of the first in the country to implement telecommuting arrangements, using a cloud-based platform called Cirrus that it developed and now offers as a service to clients.

This will allow at least 20% of employees—particularly those in at-risk groups—to continue working remotely until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, Maddock said. The company will not bring the rest of the workforce back into the office until after the lockdown is lifted, and a 30-day buffer period has been observed for its offices to be redesigned to adhere to social distancing practices, he said.

According to Patrick Marquina, head of talent and rewards at human resources consultancy firm Willis Towers Watson, a digital transformation was under way at some Philippine companies even before the pandemic—particularly the local arms of multinational brands and conglomerates. “But it’s only now that those efforts are being tested,” he said, adding that most companies were now in “wait-and-see mode” for virus restrictions to be lifted and are likely to adjust their working conditions accordingly, with some offices being opened back up in phases.

Listed real estate firm Ayala Land, for example, is already keen on bringing back employees once “circumstances allow.”

“The advantage of a work-from-home setup at this time is that we were able to test the readiness of the organization to adapt to a virtual work process, [which will] help us enhance our digital capabilities,” said Eliezer Tanlapco, head of the company’s human resources and public affairs department. “However, our employees, being people-oriented, will likewise appreciate the regular interface with clients and colleagues.”

For some, telecommuting is dependent on the Philippines building stronger internet infrastructure that can support employees working from home. The average download speed for fixed broadband in the Philippines is 21 MBps, way below the global average of 74 Mbps, according to the latest data from the Speedtest Global Index.

“Before remote work takes off, it’s important for the technological support to be in place,” Marquina said.

This article was originally published by South China Morning Post. Additional reporting by Reuters.